FOI LAW: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
After 12 years of sojourn on the shelves of the National Assembly, President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Freedom of Information Bill into law on May 27. The development is a watershed in our country, as true democracy cannot be divorced from full disclosure and free flow of information, which such a law would engender.
Highlights of the new law include the fact that any Nigerian can apply for access to public records and information, and an applicant can sue the agency that refuses to release information.
Also, a court can compel the release of such information if the national interest is considered to be more paramount, but certain information can be withheld if it would compromise national security, give away a confidential source, be injurious to international affairs, intrude into privacy, expose trade secrets, etc.
Again, the new law stipulates that if any public officer destroys or doctors public records before making them available, he risks criminal prosecution and imprisonment for a minimum of one year, while any institution that fails to provide the information required would be fined N500,000.00.
An erroneous impression long held was that the FoI law was a strictly media legislation, but this has now been largely disproven. Beyond just journalists, the law enables all Nigerians unfettered access to information that can lead to a fairer, more just and equitable society. It will promote transparency, good governance and accountability.
No doubt, the signing of the FoI bill into law is a plus for the Goodluck Jonathan administration. President Olusegun Obasanjo had withheld assent to the law shortly before leaving office in 2007, claiming there were some provisions incompatible with national security in it. That the legislation has seen the light of day now is evidence that the Jonathan regime would not be averse to the searchlight being beamed on its activities. This will definitely elicit the confidence of the populace.
We believe that crucial and relevant information should be in the public domain, as long as such does not threaten national security, or upset the equilibrium of society. Tribute should, therefore, be paid to all those who were in the vanguard of the passage of this law in the past 12 years. They include the leadership of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), non-governmental organisations, pressure groups, and, indeed, all stakeholders. It was a battle well fought, and a victory well deserved.
Now that we have the FoI law, what are the corollary challenges? There is no freedom without responsibility, and absolute freedom tends to injure the person who wields it. Let beneficiaries of the new law use it with utmost sense of responsibility. It should by no means be an open door to all manners of inanities and frivolities. This is a law that calls for both liberty and restraint at the same time, and we hope it will be handled as such by all that will utilise it.
Civil servants have a great role to play in the disclosure of public information. The new law, therefore, calls for a new attitude and mindset from them. There is the need for education and capacity building, so that they get to understand their roles and responsibilities under the new law. Indeed, all that will apply the new legislation need to get familiar with it, and we urge that it be scrupulously studied, and its provisions understood and internalised.
The FoI law has strengthened the hands of journalists and media professionals. Let these set of people utilise it for greater ethical practise of their profession, and let there be painstaking investigations that can encourage better governance, transparency and accountability in the land. Of course, malefactors should be exposed and made to face the due weight of the law.
Development thrives on information. This new law opens new vistas for our country, and nobody needs be afraid of it, or unduly apprehensive. Only evildoers thrive in shady and secretive acts, which will no longer be encouraged under this law. Indeed, this is a new dawn in terms of full disclosure in our country, particularly in the area of governance and public service. We sincerely look forward to an information-led country, with all its potentials and possibilities.
However, it is one thing to have a law, it is another to implement it. We are sure people who love and relish the old arcane and cultic order will erect stumbling blocks before this new law. It will not be in the interest of our country. Therefore, government, the media, non-governmental organisations, indeed, all stakeholders, should follow up the legislation with the necessary backups for implementation. Government, for instance, should immediately repeal all the laws which run contrary to the new one on freedom of information. The states of the federation equally need to concur with the law, and we urge them all to do that expeditiously.
The Freedom of Information Bill was gazetted in the National Assembly on December 9, 1999. After 12 tortuous years, it became a law on May 27, 2011. It is our fervent hope that the long walk to freedom will usher us to fair havens, a clime in which the power inherent in information will redound to national development.