Sierra Leone: FOI is One Thing, Freedom of Press Another

11 November 2013

By Amanda Vragovich

Vragovich is the Assistant Program Officer for West Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy.  This article appeared Nov. 7 in ThinkAfricaPress.

On 31 October, after ten years of civil society activism, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone signed into law the Right to Access Information Bill. The long-awaited freedom of information (FOI) legislation had been passed by Parliament two days previously, and followed a week-long media campaign – led by the Freedom of Information Coalition and Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI) – to raise public awareness and support for the bill.

However, while the passage of the law has been widely celebrated, civil society groups remain somewhat cautious in their enthusiasm. There are lingering questions as to why the government finally decided to support the bill and then pass it into law so swiftly; the state’s commitment to properly enact the law remains to be seen; and some fear that unless existing criminal libel laws are also reformed, the new laws could have little effect.

 A media victory?

The Right to Access Information Bill’s passage at the end of October coincided with three events: Global Transparency Week, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) conference in London, and, ironically, a demonstration against perceived government repression of press freedoms. On the day Parliament was debating and passing the bill, Sierra Leonean journalists were protesting in solidarity with two journalists who were in court on charges of insulting the president. Sierra Leonean media groups criticised the government’s “assault” on media independence and declared a news blackout on what was dubbed ‘Black Tuesday’.

Nevertheless, they would have been pleased with what was finally going on behind parliament doors. Since the end of the civil war in 2002, each successive administration had promised to respect the right to information and enact an FOI law. But those promises never materialised with officials expressing an array of reservations ranging from claims of administrative unpreparedness, to fears over the bill’s potential implications for national security, to purported concerns that journalists might abuse FOI for slanderous reporting.

During this time, civil society groups’ argument that the law is a fundamental right essential to tackling corruption and rebuilding the social contract between the government and citizens after the war fell on deaf ears. It would’ve been with relief then that they received the news last week that this had changed all of a sudden.

However, this revelation will also have come as a peculiar surprise. Neither Parliament nor the executive has offered reasons as to why the bill unexpectedly re-emerged, or what led to the rapid surge in political support for the law. And as a result of this uncertainty, some fear that the law’s passage was driven by external actors rather than a principled commitment to transparency and accountability. And Sierra Leoneans only have to look across the border to Liberia to see what can happen – or rather what can stay the same – when an FOI law is passed without an accompanying degree of genuine political will.

Labouring on in Liberia

In Liberia, little has changed in terms of press freedoms since an FOI law was passed in 2010. In fact, Liberia has recently had its own high-profile civil libel suit in which a journalist stood accused of insulting a politician. In that case, Rodney Sieh, editor of Frontpage Africa, was jailed for failing to pay a $1.5 million fine for committing libel against former agriculture minister J. Chris Toe. In July 2012, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls on governments across Africa to abolish defamation laws. But when pressured by international rights organisations to make good on her promise in her own country in light of Sieh’s imprisonment, her administration responded by touting all its past improvements in press freedom and freedom of information.

One of these purported achievements was the passing of Liberia’s FOI laws. But this legislation – the first of its kind to be passed in West Africa – has done little to open up access to information and enhance government transparency.

According to a report by the Centre for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), the government has only granted 10% of information requests. Officials lament that most denials are a result of simple logistical and budgetary constraints. These limitations, they say, lead to problems such as an absence of photocopiers and electricity and poor file management. And the frustrations caused by these delays and failures in turn leads to public disenchantment with the system. CEMESP, for example, also found that in all denied cases, requesters did not pursue their right to appeal past the internal review mechanism.

CEMESP also tested this appeals procedure itself, filing a complaint regarding a FOI request for information from the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) that it had had denied. On 7 January, 2013, CEMESP filed the appeal to the Independent Information Commission – the final arbiter of all complaints concerning FOI request denials – requesting arbitration. Over 100 days passed without even acknowledgement of the complaint, so CEMESP eventually appealed to the Supreme Court to compel the Independent Information Commissioner to deliver a ruling. It was three months later, on 23 July, that the Independent Information Commissioner ruled in favour of CEMESP’s appeal, ordering the LACC to release the information requested.

Why now?

As seen in Liberia, the mere passing of a law does not necessarily signal any real kind of change, especially if the political will does not exist to enforce it. And unfortunately for Sierra Leone, there are suggestions that the passage of the FOI bill was not driven primarily by a concern with press freedoms, but more expedient political reasons.

While journalists in the country complain of state interference, Sierra Leone has applied for membership to the Open Government Partnership – an international organisation which promotes transparency and accountability – and hopes to join it in 2014. But in order to qualify, countries need to reach a certain score based on the openness of its government. Before last week, Sierra Leone was three points short. By passing the draft FOI bill into law, Sierra Leone’s OGP eligibility score has jumped to one over the required minimum. Furthermore, joining the OGP and passing an FOI bill into law are also thought to be ways in which Sierra Leone could boost its eligibility for receiving a grant as part of a Millennium Challenge Corporation compact.

As the Liberian example shows, a lack of a principled commitment to transparency and accountability coupled with the ongoing existence of repressive libel laws, can prevent a culture of freedom of information firmly taking root. FOI can only be useful if citizens are genuinely able to access information freely and if civil society and the media can publicly engage in discussions without fear of libel suits from public officials. Passing an FOI law is a commendable move, but without action, political will and accountability, a law is little more than a piece of paper.

 

 

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