FOI: Mark has overstepped the mark

By Casmir Igbokwe
Published: Sunday, 20 Jan 2008
Please pause and ponder over these posers: One, how many extra-marital affairs did the former United Kingdom‘s Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, conduct between entering office on 2 May 1997 and 12 July 2006? Two, how much toilet paper was used at 10 Downing Street, London? And three, how many eligible bachelors did Hampshire police in the UK employ last year? These are some of the requests that have been made under the Freedom of Information Act in the UK. No doubt, the questions were frivolous. But the requesters felt they were exercising their fundamental rights. They are not known to be journalists. And they don’t need to be journalists to exercise the right to know.
This is the point the Senate President, David Mark, seems to be missing. Recently, Mark reportedly expressed his desire to convene a mini-conference between his office and media owners. Agenda? To discuss how to check the menace of quacks in journalism. He gave this as a condition for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill pending before the National Assembly.

The question is, what exactly does the Freedom of Information represent? Writing in Comparative Media Law Journal, an FOI expert, Toby Mendel, submits, “The FOI refers primarily to the right to access information held by a wide range of public bodies. It reflects the principle that public bodies do not hold information on their own behalf, but rather for the benefit of all members of the public. Individuals should thus be able to access this information, unless there is an overriding public interest reason for denying access.” This means that with FOI legislation, market women, housewives, mechanics, lawyers, journalists and indeed, any citizen can seek and receive information, especially about their living conditions.

It is either that Mark is ignorant of this principle or he deliberately chose to pull the wool over the eyes of Nigerians. Either way, his action tallies with the obstacles and controversies that dogged the passage of this bill in many countries. In the UK, for instance, the legislation came into being after a quarter of a century of campaigns by the Labour Party. The Labour government had issued a White Paper entitled “Your Right to Know” in 1997. The White Paper contained features aimed at facilitating easy access to information. But important members of the Cabinet, especially the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, were uncomfortable with it. Thus, they watered down much of the proposal in the White Paper before publishing the draft bill. There were some other amendments to the bill, which eventually became law on 30 November 2000. But it was not until 1 January 2005 that it became operational.

In South Africa, which enacted the law on 3 February 2000 and started using it on 9 March 2001, the Act did not also have an easy passage through Parliament. Some controversial aspects of the Bill were the right of members of the public to gain access to information held by private bodies and the provisions providing protection for whistle-blowers.

In Nigeria, the FOI Bill has had a tortuous journey as well. The government first rejected the proposal for it to present it as an Executive Bill in 1999. It was subsequently presented as a private member’s bill and published in the Federal Government’s Gazette on 8 December 1999. The then House of Representatives chose to play games with this Bill. This did not surprise informed Nigerians who knew that the proclivity for corruption among some legislators meant they would never be comfortable with any law that would prescribe a probe into their affairs. As such, the Bill died temporarily with the termination of the lifespan of the then National Assembly in June 2003.

It was a new House of Representatives that eventually passed one version of the Bill in 2004. The Senate passed its version two years after. In February 2007, the two chambers of the National Assembly harmonised and adopted the versions and subsequently sent it to the then President Olusegun Obasanjo for his assent. Obasanjo refused to sign this into law. His major grouse, according to media reports, was that the title of the Bill should have read “Right to Information Bill” instead of “Freedom of Information Bill”. The lawmakers failed to override this veto before their tenure expired on June 3, 2007.

The leadership of the incumbent National Assembly has variously pledged to quickly pass the Bill into law. But from Mark‘s recent statement, it is doubtful if there is any sincerity in those promises. In the UK, some parliamentarians, last year, failed in their attempt to get through an amendment that would exclude anything relating to the parliament from the Act.

Any attempt to stall the passage of this law in Nigeria will also fail. The legislation will definitely not solve the problems of sourcing information in Nigeria. But it is a step forward. In spite of the problems associated with the Act in South Africa, for instance, some villagers have used it to get some services they need. In one particular case, the people of Emkhandlwini village in KwaZulu-Natal had no access to municipal water. Although the municipality had decided to provide water in the area, the villagers did not know about this plan. They contacted a non-governmental organisation called Open Democracy Advice Centre for help. ODAC made a request under the country’s Promotion of Access to Information Act for the minutes of the council meetings where the decision to provide water was made. After some months of digging for facts, the NGO got the relevant documents indicating plans to provide water in the region.

Gradually, both government functionaries and civil society in many countries are recognising the values of an open society. Although the FOI law had been in operation in Sweden over 200 years ago, it was not until about a decade and half ago that most countries began to adopt it, though in varying degrees. Now, over 60 countries have adopted the law. In Africa, the legislation exists in Angola, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean Act, though, has censorship provisions that had been used to harass and intimidate journalists.

David Mark should rally his fellow lawmakers to pass this law as soon as possible. He does not need any meeting with the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria to do this. He should not bother if such frivolous requests, as how many extra-marital affairs he has had since he assumed office, crops up. Only corrupt leaders should worry themselves. His guiding principle should be in these wise words of the major proponent of the American Bill of Rights, James Madison: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without a popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”


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