Sierra Leone Government Delays FOI Legislation

10 July 2013

The Sierra Leone government is delaying action on freedom of information legislation because of “poor records management.”

The open-ended postponement comes after months of more positive signals from other officials and prompted a strong retort from a leading FOI campaigner.

“It is unfortunate that the Government of Sierra Leone continues to play games with this very important Bill, promising one day to pass it urgently and finding excuses the next day why they cannot pass the Bill,” said Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda, Nigeria and a member of the Working Group of the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), in a statement to FreedomInfo.org.

“This has been their standard strategy over the last 10 years,” Ojo continued, “Perhaps one of the reasons their records are in such shambles is because they do not have a Freedom of Information Act.”

The news of delay comes despite an assurance given July 5 at a press conference by President Ernest Bai Koroma. “He assured of the government’s commitment to the Freedom of Information bill now in parliament…” according to a report in Awareness Times.  

Secretary to Cabinet Ernest Surrur announced the delay over the weekend a forum for civil servants in Freetown, according to a July 10 report by Awoko.

The article says:

He said government needs to put in place “a proper mechanism” that will ensure proper records management to include filing and storage. “This is important because once the Act is passed MDAs would be held to account for information that are considered of public interest,” Mr. Surrur stated.

“As at now, government is working towards improving its records management system through the Public Sector Reform Secretariat by digitalizing all its records,” the Cabinet Secretary noted.vMunir Kawa of the Records Management Office at the Public Sector Reform Unit confirmed this when he stated, “we are currently working towards the improvement of our records management.” 

Rationale  Questioned

Ojo questioned whether the government is addressing the records issue and said a FOI law actually would help.  He commented:

If a Freedom of Information Act, which puts a legal obligation on public institutions to respond to requests for information was in place, the Government would have been compelled by now to find a solution to its public records management challenges. 

 At things stand, they have no incentive to address the problem and there is no evidence that they are seriously trying to solve the problem over the eight years since they said they had been at it.  In any event, if the government has sincere intentions, nothing stops it from going ahead to pass the Bill while putting a commencement date which gives it reasonable time to address the problem of record management, among other potential implementation issues, as a number of countries have done in the past.

Kawa is quoted as saying that the Records Unit “is faced with serious funding constraints” and can only undertake documentation projects when they are contracted by development agencies.

The Cabinet Secretary’s rationale is similar to comments made recently by the Clerk of the House of Parliament, Ibrahim Sesay. On June 27 he told representatives of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), “What is holding this Bill (from being passed into law) is the necessity to first organize the information itself in a way that you can access it easily – either from the library or some other public places,” according to an Awoka report.

“I refer to it as the ‘Access to Information Bill’ because the Constitution already makes provision for freedom of information. You already have the freedom to get information; all you need now is how you can access that information,” he also said, according to Awoka.

Sesay said steps would be necessary to prevent the possible misuse of information. He was quoted as saying: “Also important is trying to know who the information being requested is meant for. We do not want to see a situation wherein information being provided to people finds its way in the hands of al-Qaeda. But I think the Bill will seek to address the issue of misuse of information.”

Reversal of Course?

During the first half of 2013, other government officials have given favorable messages about the passage of a FOI bill, which advocates have been pushing for more than eight years.

Sierra Leone Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Theo Nicol said May 13 that the political will exists to ensure a freedom of information bill is passed this time around and that the president will sign it. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

“FOI is on a better footing to be passed this time round and I will meet this coalition again for progress on that,” Minister of Information and Communication Alpha Kanu assured members of the FOI coalition on March 14. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The apparent change on FOI comes against a backdrop of perceived hostility by the Koroma administration to the media.

The International Press Institute (IPI) in June voiced concern about statements made by Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, a former newspaper publisher who is now special executive assistant to President Koroma. She reportedly warned journalists in Sierra Leone to “prepare for a massive and long overdue sanitisation” of the country’s media landscape.

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