Nigerian Commentary: Freedom of Dis-Information!

28 April 2016

By Eugene Enahoro

The author describes himself on Twitter as an “HR & Capacity Development professional who writes Tuesday Column in Daily Trust Newspaper and concerns himself only with important matters.” This opinion article was first published in The Daily Trust.

As the nation prepares to celebrate 17 years of uninterrupted civilian rule it’s quite clear that we are yet to master the basics of people-centred governance. In a true democracy the public is expected to have access to information on how they are governed and plans for the future.

Such access to information is basic to the democratic way of life, and the tendency to withhold information from the general public is an indication of unconstitutional, fraudulent or corrupt practices by government officials. The denial of access to information and the attendant widespread ignorance in the society actually does more harm than good. Many government officials say the Official Secrets Act which makes it an offence for civil servants to give out government information, prevents them from complying with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

However the level of secrecy in government is so ridiculous that every government file has the words “Top Secret” printed on its cover, even if all it contains are newspaper cuttings which are already in the public domain!

When former President Goodluck Jonathan signed the FOIA into law on May 26th 2011 it was assumed that the nation was finally on the path to open accountable governance. The Act is supposed to make public records and information more freely available, provide public access to public records and information, and protect public records and information to the extent consistent with public interest. It also contains provisions for protecting public officers from adverse consequences of disclosing certain kinds of information without “authorization”.

The emergence of such freedom of information legislation worldwide was a response to increasing dissatisfaction with the all-encompassing secrecy surrounding government activities and decision making. Freedom of information legislation is supposed to establish a “right to know” process by which requests may be made for government held information to be received freely or at minimal cost. Despite the FOIA being five years old, the fact remains that the only commodity that is scarcer than petrol in Nigeria is the truth! It’s incredible how we constantly get contrasting and contradictory information form official government sources. It betrays either an unacceptable level of incompetence, or worse still, an intentional misinformation and deceit for propaganda purposes.

These are perilous times for truth and information in Nigeria. The Federal Government says one thing in China and another in Nigeria.  Amnesty international have substantiated quite shocking revelations on the army Shi’ite clashes which contradict the official version given by the Nigerian army. Since 2001 all Secretaries to Government of the Federation (SGF) claim to have dealt with “ghost workers” yet they are still being discovered on the payroll. Minister of State for Petroleum Resources Ibe Kachikwu announced that fuel queues will end by April 7th, and they are still with us almost a month later. It’s evident that disinformation is being freely given out and truth is still being hidden. Unfortunately for Nigerians the role of the Federal Ministry of Information has transmuted from its original function. The current minister Lai Mohammed appears enamoured with the trappings of office and unclear as to what his ministry should be doing. In the post independent 1960’s the Federal Ministry of Information concerned itself with providing information on Nigeria and liaising with our embassies and governments worldwide.

Back then the ruling party had a Chief Press Secretary whose business it was to articulate and promote policies of the government of the day. During the civil war the Federal government decided to use the Ministry of Information’s worldwide network to counter the effective international pro-Biafra propaganda and promote their version of the story. Thus the ministry became a mouthpiece for the government of the day rather than for the nation as a whole. Since the departure of the military, the ministry has not reverted back to its original raison d’etre of providing information to the general public at large. One of the main drawbacks of the FOIA is that it is within the ambit of the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation. This should be changed immediately. It should be the job of the Federal Ministry of Information to provide forms through which citizens can apply for, and receive, government information. 

It is often said that the truth is simply what people believe. In the current absence of accurate information on matters of public interest, citizens are forced to believe rumours, unconfirmed reports, and dis-information. It’s only when there is true freedom of information that a nation can impose professional standards of truth, accuracy, informative content, objectivity, and balance in reporting the actions of our leaders. It’s manifestly clear that the serial abuse of our democracy will continue as long as we fail to tie our leaders down to telling the truth. True freedom of information will curb executive and judicial recklessness, assist the war against corruption and facilitate openness, transparency and good governance.

 

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