For the government of any society to grow, it must as a matter of superlative necessity concentrate and build on its information structure in order to improve and increase its public confidence. If such confidence is lost then the government becomes a pillar of salt good for nothing but to be trodden under the foot of men. Therefore it is imperative for government to take reasonable steps targeted towards creating, improving and sustaining proper access to public information for its citizens through the enactment of laws, sensitizations and establishment of regulatory bodies designed to ethically mobilize, morally re-orientate and legally empower the people to demand for any public document or information from any public institution.
Access to public information held by public authorities is an important element to the growth of any democratic society. It is the background check to civilization in the 21st century. It is an offshoot of the right to freedom of expression as provided under section 39 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. A corollary of this right includes the right to seek, receive and impart information at all levels.
Information is the life wire of any modern democratic nation. It is the blood that flows through the veins of the human society. Information is no doubt the stimulus of all thoughts and actions of every living creature. It is the lubricant that eases the wheels of peace, progress, harmony and trust in the social contract between the government and the governed. According to Glean (1990), information can be construed to be the ‘‘blood and oxygen’’ of a democratic society. Thus, in every human society that shuts its citizenry outside the door of information is certainly one living in bondage.
HISTORY OF FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT IN NIGERIA
The enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FIA) can be traced to the evolution of press freedom in Nigeria. The first newspaper in Nigeria was established in 1859 and was called ‘iwe irohin’. The paper existed from 1859 to 1867 and subsequently other newspaper began to appear in the late 1880’s. In the early 1900’s the British colonial government became uncomfortable with the press and therefore enacted repressive legislations that made it difficult for press freedom. They found and devised ways of checking the perceived threats and excesses of the press, especially towards the colonial administration. They enacted laws to curb the excesses of the press in order to curtail press freedom like the Newspaper ordinance No. 10 of 1903 followed by the Seditious Offences Ordinance No. 10 of 1909.
However, as Nigeria became independent in 1960, freedom of information through freedom of expression became a constitutional right to be reckoned with as it was incorporated into the independence constitution in 1960. The Official Secret Act of 1962 was a colonial law that still restricted the free flow of information even after independence because it had not been repealed then.
Another challenge that restricted press freedom was during the military junta which witnessed a great turn around and suspension of freedom of information inherent in the right to freedom of expression by the promulgation of Decree No.1 (Suspension and Enforcement) of 1966. As a result of this shortcomings coupled with the restrictions imposed on government authorities through the Official Secret Act in disclosing important information necessary in the public domain in the guise of complying with the extant legislation. Some concerned Nigerians and Non-Government Organizations led by the Media Right Agenda (MRA), came together to spearhead and initiate the drafting of the Freedom of Information Bill that later became an Act of the National Assembly.
THE EFFECT OF INFORMATION AS AN INTERNATIONAL LEGAL INSTRUMENT
By virtue of section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) which provides for the right to freedom of expression and the press and that every person shall be entitled to own and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions. It is pertinent to note that this right has also received universal acclamation and recognition within the international community through the enactment of multilateral treaties like the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 19th of December 1966 and the African Charter on Human and People’s Right proclaimed on 21st of October 1986. The African Charter being an international human right instrument is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedom in the African continent.
By virtue of Article 9 of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption requires all state parties to adopt such legislative and other measures to give effect to the right of access to any information that is required to assist in the fight against corruption and other related offences. More so, Article 13 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in October 2003) requires every state government to ensure citizens participation in anticorruption measures through:
- Enhancing the transparency of and promoting the contribution of the public to decision making processes; and
- Ensuring that the public have unhindered access to information. The ancillary to this development coupled with the massive successes recorded by other countries led several Non-governmental agencies to initiate the idea for the enactment of an effective law that promotes and protects freedom of information.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 2011
The Freedom of Information Act was enacted by the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and assented to by Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan on the 28th day of May, 2011. This came to being after twelve years of legislative hurdles on the Freedom of Information Bill, having been first sponsored in 1999, finally got the nod of the National Assembly.
The Freedom of Information Act requires every government agency to make public records and information readily and freely available to any person for inspection. It suffices to note that the Freedom of Information Act is one of the most potent legal weapons we can employ as citizens in demanding for transparency and accountability in governance. The FOI Act is also Nigeria’s principal legislation that protects the dissemination of relevant public information for the consumption of every Nigerian Citizen.
Where an agency of government or other public institutions unnecessarily and improperly withholds important information or public document duly demanded for, the Act under section 20 of the Act empowers an applicant who has been denied access to information to apply to the court for a review of the matter within 30 days after such denial by the public institution or within such time as the court may deem fit to make either before or after the expiration of 30 days and also vests the court of law with jurisdiction to order their immediate production. It was on this premise that the pressure group called STOP IMMUNITY NIGERIA (SIN) on the 5th day of June 2013, filled a suit on behalf of the group called PARADIGM INITIATIVE NIGERIA (PIN), to compel the special advisor to the former President on Media and Publicity Dr. Reuben Abati to disclose to the organization detailed information on the multi-million dollar contract awarded in April 2013.
One good thing about the Act is that it contains a development plan that integrates various sectors of the economy and other government agencies and does not confine itself to specific sectors or limit itself to addressing only the major challenges identified, Instead it looks at the big picture with a view to examining how the challenges identified in each sector affects one another.
THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION VANGUARD CDS GROUP AND THE ROLE OF THE NYSC
In a bid to unearthing the importance of the Act in achieving a system of governance anchored on the pillars of honesty, fairness, transparency and accountability at all levels in Nigeria and the role the National Youth Service (NYSC) must play in this regard, a workshop on Freedom of Information Act for NYSC desk officers was organized on the 17th – 19th August, 2015 in Abuja, with the theme: ‘‘Broadening the Horizon of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Desk Officers for enhanced compliance.’’
The motto of the CDS group reads ‘‘Information: Key to Freedom’’ However, whilst the truth may be that one is free, it is a different ball game entirely for one to be aware that truth. In order words, it is not the truth that sets one free but knowledge of the truth. Therefore, how can people be aware of their right to access information when their supposed knowledge of this right is shrouded in ignorance? It is this puzzle that the CDS group has set out to unravel through relentless efforts in sensitizing people of this salient right and ways through which it can be exercised and enforced. Since the strength and weakness of any democratic society is totally centered on the information mechanism and channels for transmitting such information, we are mindful of the fact that certain classified information are not meant for public consumption for the purpose of national security, protecting the image of the government and such that is necessary and reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
Despite the odious challenge confronting the group a structure has been put in place in line with the mandate of the group to carry out proper sensitization and awareness campaigns, academic symposiums, and seminars. For the past one year the group has embarked on series of consultative and participatory process with other government agencies, NGO’s and Associations in the state with similar objectives for the sole purpose of bringing into life the rationale behind the enactment of the Act which among others includes:
- Ensuring that there is active participation in governance by all especially in a modern democratic society like ours;
- That Transparency and Accountability in governance is institutionalized;
- Corruption is stemmed and eliminated; d. That lay down procedures in the conduct of public Affairs are strictly adhered to;
- That the business of governance is open for public scrutiny, and f. Scarce resources are judiciously used, managed and deployed for the general well-being of the citizens.
Since democracy is characterized with participatory nature of political process where the citizen has a right to know and access relevant information and also have their privacy protected, access to that information becomes one of the fundamental requirements of having a viable democracy in any society. Thus an improved access to information fuels the needed changes the society may experience from time to time as a socio-political system in which all people are guaranteed the right to benefit from access to information resources.
According to Abdul Waheed Khan, Assistant Director General for Communication and Information of UNESCO:
‘‘The concept of true flow of information and ideas constitute a nucleus of democracy and is also critical to the respect for Human right. Without the right to freedom of expression, which incorporates the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, the right to vote is undermined, human right abuses are perpetrated in secret and it becomes impossible to expose corrupt and inefficient government. Therefore the essence of free flow of information and ideas is predicated upon the truism that public bodies hold information not for themselves but on behalf of the public. If public bodies with a vast of information hold them in secret, the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under international law in many constitutions and other extant laws would seriously be undermined.’’
Fredrick Anthony Okagua ESQ DIL (Benin); LL.B (Hons) Benin; B.L (Lagos)
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