FOI AND THE TRAVAILS OF NIGERIAN JOURNALISTS
Freedom of information is a vital need of every society. Also, the freedom to information should be a privileged right for every member of the society. Truly, as significant as information is, truly, that not all members of the society can involve in its hunt, dissemination and preservation. The importance of information, therefore, cannot be overemphasized. Some even believe that it is more important than government itself.
There is no gainsaying the fact that some of the proprietors of the media outfits are either full-time politicians or politically inclined personalities who establish such to promote their ideals and political interests. In so doing, the media practitioners as well as the ‘quacks’ in some cases are employed to manage the outfits. This has created a vague distinction between politics and journalism. This also accounts for the reason why most national dailies focus much more on politics than any other field of human endeavours. It is political headlines that attract more sales and it has proved to be the yardstick upon which excellence in journalism is mostly adjudged.
Because of the control of politicians over the media, there are always the tendencies for media wars among them which result to lies, slander, scandals and blackmails. This is why it is sometimes difficult to sieve the ‘quacks’ because their attachment with highly ranked politicians would save them from any legal action for unprofessional reporting.
The free flow of information which empowers the populace to engage their leaders and their governments at all levels in accountability, improving transparency and fighting corruption makes a good society. This is the primary aim and objective of the Freedom of Information Law which has recently been born in Nigeria.
The FOI law, analysis shows, seeks to provide public access to official records and information in line with public interest and protection of personal privacy. It also protects serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain information without authorisation and equally establishes procedures for the achievement of those purposes and related purposes thereof.
Section 10 of the law stipulates a penalty of 3 years imprisonment for any officer or head of government who “tries to either willfully destroy any records kept in his/her custody or attempts to doctor or alter information before they are released to any person or entity requesting it.”
After a long, somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards its birth, the National Assembly passed the bill. Recalling assurances by the NASS leadership, Senate President, Senator David Mark on one occasion told members of Newspapers Proprietors Association of
Nigeria (NPAN) Executive Members who visited him that the Bill which was rechristened
asses to information Bill by the House of Representatives was not primarily a media
Bill but a Bill for all Nigerians.
Mark had charged the media proprietors and operators to show enough responsibility and entrench check and balance among the operators so that the law would not be abused or used to witch hunt perceived press unfriendly politicians or citizens of Nigeria.
Former Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on National Assembly Matters, Senator Mohammed Abba Aji, had faulted the passage of the Bill, expressing disappointment in the National Assembly for passing the bill into law. He affirmed to be one of those who opposed the passage of the bill on the floor of the Senate during the Obasanjo’s regime, claiming that public institutions have information that must be closely guided for the benefit of peace, progress and development of the society. So it was delayed till eleven years later.
It would be recalled that the Bill first made its appearance on the floor of the National Assembly as a private legislative initiative in July 1999. It was passed by the National Assembly in 2006 but former President Olusegun Obasanjo refused to assent to it because of fears that it contained certain clauses that were against national interest and security.
The Bill then began a fresh journey in the National Assembly in 2007 after it was re-introduced by Representative Abike Dabiri-Erewa (ACN-Lagos), a former journalist, and four other lawmakers. The House of Representatives passed the bill on February 24, 2011 while the Senate passed its own version of the bill on March 16, 2011.
Provisions of the FOI law restrict access to information on issues that may jeopardise national security, foreign affairs and national economy. There have been arguments on who defines these issues and that it may lead to denial of information. With the signing of the bill, it is now the right of all citizens of the country to apply and have access to public documents and information in line with the law. The law grants all citizens including the press, rights to apply and have access to public documents and information. “A public institution may deny an application for any information the disclosure of which may be injurious to the conduct of international affairs, security and defence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, the law asserts.
The law provides in Section 2 (3) that “Any person entitled to the right to information under this bill, shall have the right to institute proceedings in a court to compel any public institution to comply with this act...Application for information under this act shall be made in writing, addressed to the Head of the public institution that has control of the information and shall provide sufficient detail to enable an employee of the institution identify the information applied for.”
The law also provides in clause 12 that information on national security, foreign affairs and national economy shall be released if “the benefits of access to the information far outweighs the damage if the information is disclosed.”
The act also provides for punitive measures against distortion of information saying “it shall be an offence punishable with 1 year imprisonment for any officer of a public institution to destroy, alter, falsify or deliberately misrepresent information kept in his custody.”
Refusal to grant access to information when it is applied for by a public officer also attracts punishment. Clause 8 of the law provides that “a N500,000 fine when a case of wrongful denial of access is established against the defaulting officer or institution on conviction.”.
However, passing the bill into law is not the problem. The problem lies on who to protect and enforce it without prejudice as well as who to protect the journalists in the discharge of their duties as provided in the law. Events of yesteryears have proved the vulnerability of the press.
It is disheartening that many journalists have been killed while on duty by alleged hired murderers. They are many. It may be hard to remember them, but the following are still rife in memory: Sunday Gyang Bwede of The Light Bearer was killed on April 24, 2010 in Jos, Plateau State; Nathan S. Dabak of The Light Bearer was killed on April 24, 2010 in Jos, Plateau State; Bayo Ohu of The Guardian was killed on September 20, 2009 in Lagos; Samson Boyi of The Scope was killed on November 5, 1999 in Adamawa State; Sam Nimfa-Jan of Details was killed on May 27, 1999 in Kafanchan; Fidelis Ikwuebe, Freelancer was killed on April 18, 1999 in Anambra; Okezie Amaruben of Newsservice was killed on September 2, 1998 in Enugu; Tunde Oladepo of The Guardian was killed on February 26, 1998 in Abeokuta; Edo Sule Ugbagwu of The Nation was killed on April 26, 2010 in an area outside Lagos; Ephraim Audu of Nasarawa State Broadcasting Service was killed on October 16, 2008 in Lafia; Paul Aboyomi Ogundeji of ThisDay was killed on August 16, 2008 in Dopemu; Godwin Agbroko of ThisDay was killed on December 22, 2006; Bolade Fasasi of National Association of Women Journalists was killed on March 31, 1999 in Ibadan; Chinedu Offoaro of The Guardian was killed on May 1, 1996; Baguda Kaltho of TheNEWS was killed on March 1, 1996, and a lot more.
These are the murdered ones. There are those living with wounds or dying by installment. All these dastardly acts have been carried out against a segment of the society which tries to ensure checks and balances in governance. And there is no doubt that if governments at all levels adhere to the pieces of advice and solutions proffered by the Nigerian professional journalists or even pick some of them, things would have changed in this country for the better. But when a journalist insists that the right thing should be done, he or she is declared an enemy, trailed and maybe maimed or murdered. And nothing is eventually done to arrest the murderers and those behind them.
However, it is also recorded that some journalists, even the professional ones do break the laudable tenets of journalism in the course of carrying out their duties. Some intentionally engage in calumny and character assassination especially when they are not offered monetary compensations for previous jobs. Some intentionally engage in PR for the brown envelop. In many occasions, journalists would not use important stories if money is not given to them by the organizers of such occasions. Newspaper proprietors must check this. More importantly, engaging field journalists by merely giving them identity cards without commensurate remunerations is largely responsible for the double-standard displayed by some journalists. It may be established that teachers and field journalists are the lowest paid group of the society.
On the other hand, what measures have been put in place to prevent politicians from establishing media outfits to witch-hunt perceived political opponents? It is important that the security of journalists is guaranteed. There should be a special unit in the Nigeria Police to tackle this incessant killing of journalists. This unit, in collaboration with the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) should also manage issues relating to mismanagement of the media by the politicians. Even before that is done, the police should tell the public those behind the gruesome murder of those journalists.
Muhammad Ajah is a writer, author, advocate of humanity and good governance based in Abuja. E-mail: [email protected]