Only Commissioner in Africa Busy With Delayed Start

3 October 2013

By Toby McIntosh

Liberia’s new information commissioner received his first appeal while working on his car in his garage.

Mark Bedo-Wla Freeman had been appointed several months earlier, but in the beginning he lacked a computer, an office or any staff.

Things are looking up now, after a little more than a year in office. Freeman has an office, 16 staffers, and plans to implement the law passed three years ago.

Among other things, he intends to disperse commission staffers around the country and to get agenices to appoint information officers, he told in a Sept. 20 interview in Berlin where he was attending the International Conference of Information Commissioners, his first.

Freeman quickly got immersed in a major legal case. Earlier this year, he ruled in favor of disclosing the asset statements of government officials. The national anti-corruption body that refused to release them has challenged his decision.

Budget Support Slow Arriving

The FOI law passed in October of 2010 has had a slow start.

It took 16 months, until May of 2012, for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to nominate a commissioner. (See previous report.) 

She chose Freeman, a journalist turned lawyer who was working with the UN Mission in Liberia. He had been the president and vice president of the Press Union of Liberia and had served as the chairman of the Independent National Commission on Human Rights.

After his confirmation, Freeman took office in September 2012,  but his agency wasn’t in the budget. This was a “source of difficulty,” he commented with a characteristic understated frankness.

But the commissioner’s office now has 16 staff members. For the coming budget year, he asked for $1.3 million, but he was uncertain of the amount recently approved by the legislature, subject to approval by the president.

His office has benefitted from significant help from  the United States, channeled through the Carter Center, which encouraged enactment of the law and helped support establishment of his office. The Carter Center has senior legal consultant to help estabish commission procedures adn intial cases. The Carter Center provided technical support, capacity-building, consultants and some equipment, but cannot easily disaggragate the amount spent on this  work from other activities in Liberia.. USAID data resources are old and not detailed enough.

“The biggest part of the challenge is that I have no predecessor in Liberia and that on the continent itself I am the only commissioner,” Freeman said.

To learn about FOI implementation, he has visited the United Kingdom and India. The Open Society institute of West Africa supported his travel to Senegal for a discussion of FOI and national security.

Decentralization Plans

He plans to “decentralize” the office, to put at least one representative in all the 15 regional subdivisions, each with an office and a laptop. The act covers the subdivisions and private entities receiving public funding and providing public services, such as telecom companies. “The coverage is really broad,” he said. Any person can bring a request.

A major challenge is that “most of the agencies have not appointed their public information officers.” Nor have they filed the required annual reports.

“Some agencies may be doing it deliberately so that they don’t comply,” he said, indicating that this issue is also before the president.

“The political will is there, it needs to be strengthened,” Freeman said.

“For the most part we have not had the capacity to even enforce the law,” Freeman said. “We are preparing a circular” to let agencies know that they must appoint information officers. He also plans to reach out to the judicial and legislative branches, also covered by the act.

“We will have a massive sensitization to ensure that they appoint their officers and requesters get drilled in moving around with a definite person to contact.”

The commission staff needs training, too, he said, a task that has been difficult without adequate funding, buth that is getting under way.

He said there is no estimate of how many requests have been made to agencies.

Big Case Early On

The commissioner has received seven appeals so far, but by far the highest profile matter concerns the declarations of assets made by public officials.

A civil society organization sought access to the declarations, but the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) denied it, based on Executive Order 38. (See previous report.)

Disagreeing in his July 23 decision, Freeman stated, “The asset declarations are part of efforts to fight corruption in Liberia. And this objective cannot be achieved if we fail or refuse to disclose the contents of asset declaration forms.”

The LACC sought to rely on Section 10.3 of Executive Order No.38, which restricts access of the declaration forms to the LACC and other authorized agencies. But the commissioner ruled that where provisions of any statute clash with the Liberia Freedom of Information Act, those provisions must, to the extent of the inconsistencies, bow to the FOI Act.

Referring to the public interest standard in the FOIA, the commissioner wrote:

The Commissioner’s application of the public interest test shows that the harm to be occasioned by disclosure of the asset declaration forms is outweighed by the public interest in having the information disclosed. The asset declarations are part of efforts to fight corruption in Liberia. And this objective cannot be achieved if we fail or refuse to disclose the contents of asset declaration forms. In this regard, the Commissioner’s decision is that the information sought should be disclosed; and therefore orders LACC to so do in the larger public interest.

He told that the purpose of the executive order is to fight corruption and that to fight corruption the declarations should be public.

No judge has been assigned to the case.

RTK Day Parade

The week preceding Right to Know Day Sept. 28 was active, with activities sponsored by the Carter Center, the government of Liberia, the Liberian Freedom of Information Coalitionand the information commissioner’s office.

There were events such as a day-long training seminar for Liberian information officers, a parade in the city of Buchanan, and a new exhibit of government documents, including the original Liberian Constitution and Declaration of Independence, displayed for the first time in Liberia.

Among those attending was Melanie Ann Pustay, the director of the Office of Information Policy of the U.S. Department of Justice, who met with ministers of the Liberian government, including Commissioner Freeman, spoke at several events and was interviewed by the managing editor of the Inquirer News Paper

On Sept. 26, the movie “Erin Brockovich” was screened in the auditorium of the University of Liberia, followed up by a panel discussion featuring the Commissioner of the Independent Information Commission, Freeman; Dr. Laurence K. Bropleh, Communications Consultant, Lone Star Cell MTN; Counselor Alfred Brownell, Executive Director, Green Advocate and Pustay.

In the Port city of Buchanan on Sept. 27, a high school debate on the Right to Know between two schools was held. A marching band led a parade of hundreds through the streets of Buchanan, ending at the fairgrounds for an indoor program with speakers from government and civil society “who celebrated the recent successes and shared challenges and next steps for assuring vibrant freedom of information in Liberia” according to a Carter Center blog post with photos.

There also was a soccer match between government information officers and civil society FOI advocates (the CSO team won 1-0). Players wore 2013 International Right to Know Day tee-shirts imprinted with the national slogan: “Tell it, show it, let’s know it!”

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