Liberia: Law Implementation and Exclusion of Access

23 October 2014

By Malcolm Joseph

The author is Executive Director, Center for Media Studies and Peace Building.  This is a chapter in the recently issued State of Right to Information in Africa Report 2014 and is reprinted with permission. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Liberia is struggling to rebuild after 15 years of civil war in the 90s and 2000s. In the last 10 years, the country held two back–to–back elections for president and lawmakers. The administration is pushing through wide ranging reforms to try to revert the marginalization of ordinary people from decision–making and lack of accountability–two main factors that led to the civil conflict, according to the Government of Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy[1].

Legal Environment for ATI

Liberia is an active player of the African Union and global community. Since the end of armed conflict in 2003 the country has held successful presidential and national elections and is progressively building peace and democracy. These efforts have seen the Government establish efforts to build the trust between government and citizens as well as accountability mechanisms. For example, Liberia is one of the few African countries that adopted the national freedom of information law, joined membership to the Open Government Partnership and has complied with reporting obligations under article 62 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Whereas this is commendable, limited attention has been paid to implementing measures to build and sustain democracy, good governance, transparency and accountability in the framework of the African Union. For example, out of the 6 African Union treaties that recognize the right to information, the Liberian government has only ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Union Convention on Combating and Preventing Corruption. It is yet to ratify the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance[2], the African Charter on the Values and Principles of Public Service and Administration[3], African Union Youth Charter[4] and the African Statistics Charter[5].

In 2012, the Government took a commendable step by submitting the Initial and Combined State Reports 1982–2012 in compliance with article 62 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights[6].

Liberia joined the Open Government Partnership in 2012 and worked collaboratively to establish a permanent joint steering committee comprised of senior government and civil society leaders. The Steering Committee led the process of action planning that prioritises 12 commitments on transparency and accountability[7]. Implementation of the country action plan is ongoing.

Liberia’s Constitution is arguably a model of explicit provisions for guaranteeing access to information and the protection of freedom of speech and the press. In general, the Constitution explicitly establishes in article 157 the followings: (1) freedom of and right to information; (2) Right to knowledge; (3) Freedom of expression; and (4) the obligations of government and officials of government to disclose and disseminate information about the government and its operations, including the obligation to give a public account of pubic revenues, and the obligation to be transparent and open. And Article 15c states, “There shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.”

In addition to its provisions relating to the functions of the legislature, the constitution calls for open deliberations and hearings. The courts are principally there to protect the rights of individuals and no doubt, the constitution provides openness in their trial processes. The constitution imposes on the president a duty of public disclosure of the legislative program and to report to the legislature the state of the Republic on the fourth working Monday of each year. It requires that during the reporting time, the president is also under obligation to present the economic condition covering expenditure and income. In Article 7, it called for the maximum feasible participation of Liberian citizens in the management of the national economy under condition of equality as to advance the general welfare of the Liberian people.

However, there are statutes, mainly of security nature, that provide for confidentiality and thereby inhibit freedom of information. The National Security Agency (NSA) Act, which created the National Security Agency, for example, outlawed the public disclosure of how its finances are expended. And even though the FOI law adopted in 2010[9] itself makes an exemption to national defence and security information, it defeats all genuine efforts if the argument is that accountability of all NSA funding is precluded from disclosure. The question that is pertinent is the existence of laws that clearly contravene the constitution, both in its spirit and intent. Like the constitution, the freedom of information Law holds primacy over these statutes.

Implementation

Since the passing of the law in September 2010, public awareness and capacity building by government and civil society organisations has been continuing. Although the impact of these awareness raising campaigns is not wide spread, it has positively impacted the demand, with some community members making information requests on important issues that affect their lives. It should be noted, however, that public awareness of their right to information and ways in which they can exercise this right is excluded or have not reached the ordinary citizen, as such very few ordinary Liberian have applied the law through filing of information requests despite the huge need for information.

The Government of Liberia, which is the prime implementer of the law, has made some strides. For instance, Liberia has appointed an Information Commissioner and provided him with some resources to carry out his work, particularly setting up office and raising public awareness. In addition, the government has appointed 17 information officers to help with implementation of the Act. Despite these efforts Liberia still has a lot to do. In addition to continued public awareness, the appointment of the remaining 75 information officers should be done. The government should also prioritise training of information officers and equipping their offices to effectively promote and implement the FOIA.

It is encouraging that information officers receive and respond to information requests. For instance, the Information officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs received 16 requests for information and responded to all. The Information Officer of the Ministry of Information received 6 requests. He responded to 5 and transferred 1 request to the National Investment Commission. The Public Works Information Officer received 7 requests and responded to 6, turning down one. There are many more requests for information being denied, including the request by the Centre for Media Studies and Peace Building, CEMESP for the asset declaration forms of government officials. The Liberia Media Centre, following the monitoring of 20 ministries and agencies implementing the Government 150–days Action Plan, reported that only 4 ministries stood out. The rest “exhibited poor client relations”. The monitoring was done by placing FOI requests for information to be analysed relative to progress made in delivering on the government’s 84 promises. Aside from the limited number of requests and responses, many of the people who filed the few requests have been unable to follow through the remedial measure for redress as provided for by the FOI law. The Independent Information Commission, for example, has not received more than 15 complaints almost two years into its job. As of last count in June 2014, the commissioner received 7 complaints to review denials. He decided 4.

Case study of the practice

The picture is not damning given that FOIA law has only been in existence for four years. There have been success stories of the use of the law that has impacted community and really transformed lives. In the South Eastern region of Grand Gedeh, it took a Freedom of Information request for three poor communities to be included in the allocation of the county development funds. Gender Peace Network, a community based organization working with community leaders and the Grand Gedeh FOI Network requested the Special County Development Resolution that contains all development projects and budgetary allocation for 2011/2012. When the authorities provided the documents, Gender Peace Network observed that Blue Camp, Camp Tuma and Crab Hole Community in Kudah Bye Pass, all in Zwedru, the provincial capital, had been left out in previous allocations. During the county sitting in August 2013, Gender Peace used the information to convince decision makers on the county and social development funds to make allocations for the three communities. Blue Camp community got its roads fixed. Crab Hole community got an elementary school and Camp Tuma community built wells for safe drinking water. The three projects cost US$66,000.

Challenges and Recommendations

Over the years of work to advance FOI, campaigners confronted a number of challenges: low capacity, lack of resources and fluctuating political commitment from the Government of Liberia served to hamper even further advancement.

It is commendable that the government adopted the national Freedom of Information law and through the Open Government Partnership is strengthening engagement with its citizens. We recommend that:

  1. Implementation of the National Access to Information Act should remain a top priority of the government. In particular, Liberia should expedite the appointment of information officers for all agencies covered by the law, offer training to officials and systematically set up implementation arrangements in all agencies. Public agencies and the Information Commissioner should treat reporting on FOIA implementation with utmost importance. Further, the government should prioritise creation of citizens’ awareness of their right to information and how they can exercise this right.
  2. Africa’s integration course has gained momentum and so is its influence at national level. In addition, the African Union is taking its place in global and continental matters. As Africa seeks to take leadership on its affairs it is of urgency that member states ratify its treaties and respect its mechanisms. In this regard, Liberia should urgently ratify and domesticate the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the African Charter on the Values and Principles of Public Service and Administration, the African Union Youth Charter and the African Statistics Charter.
  3. It is commendable that Liberia is a member of OGP and has prioritized in its country action plan implementation of FOIA. Implementation of this action plan should be strengthened, operationalization of the national OGP steering committee strengthened and engagement with civil society on country priorities continued.
  4. Reporting to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Liberia embraced in 2012, should be continued. The government should pay attention to follow–up and implementation of ACHPR’s concluding observations and recommendations.

 


[1] http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2012/cr1245.pdf

[2] http://www.ipu.org/idd-E/afr_charter.pdf

[3] http://www.au.int/en/content/african-charter-values-and-principles-public-service-and-administration

[4] http://www.au.int/en/sites/default/files/AFRICAN_YOUTH_CHARTER.pdf

[5] http://www.au.int/en/sites/default/files/AFRICAN_CHARTER_ON_STATISTICS.pdf

[6] http://www.achpr.org/states/liberia/reports/1-1984-2012/

[7] http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/liberia/action-plan

[8] http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—ilo_aids/documents/legaldocument/wcms_126725.pdf

[9] http://www.liberianembassyus.org/uploads/documents/Liberia%20Freedom%20of%20Information%20Act%202010x.pdf

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