15 January 2000

Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria

A three-day National Seminar on the "Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria" was held at the Gombe Jewel Hotel, Kaduna from Wednesday, December 15 to Friday, December 17, 1999. The seminar held under the auspices of the Media For Democracy (MFD, a collaboration of the Independent Journalism Centre (IJC), Journalists for Democratic Rights (JODER), and Media Rights Agenda (MRA), with the Support of the European Union through the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

The Seminar was attended by about 30 participants drawn from among journalists from print and electronic media establishments and various state councils of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in northern Nigeria and Lagos, as well as representatives of non-governmental organizations working on media issues and a member of the National Assembly.

Preamble



Erudite, professional and incisive papers were presented at the seminar. They include: "Freedom of Information: An International Review", "Economic Perspectives/Benefits of Freedom of Information Legislation", "The Media and the Need for a Freedom of Information Legislation", "Freedom of Information Act as a Working Tool for the Media", "Legal/Constitutional Perspective of a Freedom of Information Legislation", etc.

All the papers were exhaustively discussed by the participants who also added other dimensions to the presentations. After the exhaustive, intensive and critical examination of the papers presented, participants issued the following observations, recommendations and resolutions:

Observations



The participants commend the Media for Democracy group for organizing the seminar. Participants also commend members of the National Assembly, particularly the sponsors of the Freedom of Information Bill in the House of Representatives, for their interest and support so far for the Bill. The participants also note:

That following our colonial heritage and the long period of military rule, there has become entrenched in the conduct of government business in Nigeria, a culture of secrecy, which insulates governments and their actions from public scrutiny.

That there is hardly any law in Nigeria which permits access to official information, and that even where a law recognizes that members of the public have a role to play in achieving the purpose of that law, the mechanisms for effective public participation are either absent or are so vague that they negate the principle of public participation.

President Olusegun Obasanjo's promise to run an open and transparent administration and fight corruption, will remain a dream because accountability and transparency in government cannot be possible if the government's books are not open to members of the public, including the media.

That the Code of Conduct for Ministers issued by President Obasanjo to members of his Cabinet as well as the Code of Conduct for Public Officers contained in the Fifth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution will be meaningless and unenforceable if citizens have no right of access to information held by the State or its agencies and if no mechanism exists for giving practical effect to the right to freedom of information.

That all over the world, a strong feature of a responsible and responsive government is its ability to enable the citizens and interested individuals to know the happenings in government and society and that information is not just a necessity, but an essential part of good government.

That when a government is open, it is possible for citizens and stakeholders to participate in the decision-making process, and that openness therefore has a great capacity to improve the quality of governance.

Resolution



The Seminar resolved that:

1. Nigerians should put pressure on the National Assembly and the Federal Government to enact a Freedom of Information Act by asking legislators to support the Bill currently in the House of Representatives and prevailing on President Obasanjo to give his assent to the Bill when it comes to him for signature, as a mark of his administration's commitment to transparency and accountability in governance.

2. The Nigerian Press has an important role to play in ensuring that the Freedom of Information Bill is passed into law by enlightening the government and members of the public on its relevance to the sustenance of the various democratic structures. The Press should also ensure the enactment of the Bill by focusing on the issues involved in order to generate the necessary groundswell of public opinion which will further pressurize members of the National Assembly into supporting the Bill and passing it into law.

3. Members of the Executive arm of the Government should support the Bill as it also has direct benefits for them as well as the larger society, and is absolutely vital if misappropriation of public funds and property is to be checked.

4. The media has a responsibility to publicize the issue of a Freedom of Information Act, educate members of the public and ensure that it remains on the national discourse until it is passed into law.

5. The House of Representatives and the Senate should pass the Bill without delay as it will protect the rights of their constituencies and make their job easier.

6. The House of Representatives and the Senate should ensure that the exemptions contained in the Bill are clearly defined in order not to allow the ambiguity of such to be used to deny Nigerians access to information.

7. The Government should create an enabling environment for the implementation of the proposed Freedom of Information Act by repealing the Official Secrets Act and all other laws in the statute books that inhibit freedom of expression and freedom of speech. The Judiciary should also create a favourable environment for adjudication on cases pertaining to refusal to disclose information as stipulated in the proposed Freedom of Information Act.

8. The Constitution Review Committee should include the Freedom of Information Act in the proposed revised Constitution and ensure that its interpretation is clear and without any ambiguity.

9. When the Freedom of Information Bill is passed into law, the reading, viewing, and listening public, to which the media is accountable, will have higher expectations from the media. The proposed Act will, therefore, require a high sense of commitment and responsibility on the part of journalists who will be expected to check information thoroughly and endeavour to publish the truth for the public good. This would also require the journalist to avoid all forms of self-censorship as the Act will protect them and their sources from official reprisals.

10. In order for journalists to adequately utilize the Freedom of Information Act when it becomes a reality, media owners need to train and re-train their journalists to ensure that they satisfy the highest standards in ethical conduct and are adequately equipped professionally to meet the challenges of the profession.

11. The Nigerian Press Organization, comprising the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) should publicize and enforce the Code of Ethics for Journalists in order to ensure that the Freedom of Information Act, when it becomes law, is not abused and that journalists are able to meet the higher standards of accuracy and fairness which will be required of them.

The motion for the adoption of the Communique was moved by Donatus Okpe of The Graphic newspaper in Lokoja, and seconded by Aminu Sa'ad Beli of Kano State Radio.
Africa, Nigeria, West Africa, Reports

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