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The Road to Freedom of Information is long and Rocky

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

10 March 2010

The idea that citizens have a right to know what their elected government and their departments are up to is one that many overzealous and unscrupulous officials in government sometimes find unsettling. They would do whatever it takes to prevent people from exercising what the rest of society would say, is a fundamental human right.

But the irony, very often, is that it is the politicians in opposition desperate to gain power that would strongly champion the cause of citizens’ rights, pointing out the excesses of the party in power, until they too take control of the corridors of government. Promises of good governance made while in opposition, are no longer worth the paper on which they were written.

President Koroma’s ascendancy to power was staged on massive popular campaign rhetoric, designed to bring good governance to Sierra Leone, through an open form of government that is fully transparent, accountable and liberal. He promised free access to government information and the enactment of legislation guaranteeing the right of citizens to see and probe government’s decisions and actions.

After almost three years in power, access to government information is as restricted, if not tighter than it ever was, as ministers and heads of departments work frantically to cover their tracks, rather than showcase their achievements for all to see.

No one argues that freedom does not come with responsibilities. The ever present risk of the possible misuse of government information by the media and citizens must not be accepted as justification for withholding free access; except where it is judged that to reveal information would lead to the miscarriage of justice or threat to state security.

With media frenzy, claims and counterclaims of corruption, graft and gerrymandering spreading like wild fire, the government could do itself a great favour by opening up access to the truth for all to see. A Freedom of Information Bill could be in the statute books in time for the celebrations of independence, on 27 April 2010.

Despite persistent demands from civil society groups and the media for the speeding up of the process leading to the Parliamentary approval of a draft Freedom of Information Act, the wheels of State House continue to turn painfully slow – almost grinding to a halt some would say.

This slow pace of expediting the process has nothing to do with bureaucracy, but a sheer determination to deny citizens and the media, the right to scrutinize the decisions of government, thus making it extremely difficult to hold state officials accountable.

What is really surprising is that neither Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative nor the international aid donors have made the enactment of a Freedom of Information Bill, a condition for the continuation of support. Are they really serious about good governance?

But perhaps with a stronger, vibrant and dynamic parliamentary democracy, the desperate cry for a Freedom of Information Act would not have been as loud as it is today. The government of President Koroma is enjoying an overwhelming majority in Parliament, thanks to the marriage of convenience entered into with the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PMDC), at the 2007 general elections.

It was on the 15 January 2009, that Sierra Leone’s Society for Democratic Initiatives, a civil society advocacy group leading the campaign for freedom of information, presented the draft copy of the Freedom of Information Bill to President Koroma. Fourteen months on, the proposed Bill is yet to see the light of day, with growing suspicion of government intention to kill or dilute the draft Bill.

Optimists had believed that the draft Bill would have received Parliamentary approval and found its way into the country’s law books, by January 2010. But it is now obvious their confidence was misplaced and premature. Promises by the government to be transparent and open, have all been broken, leaving behind a long paper trail of excuses and cover ups.

Speaking at the recent Media Awards Ceremony in Freetown, organised by the Independent Media Commission, the Minister of Information and Communications said that, the Freedom of Information Bill will soon be discussed in Cabinet and that SLAJ would be co-opted into the cabinet sub-committee to discuss the draft Bill.

This latest twist would not only come as a shock to the civil society movement, but will most certainly be regarded as an attempt to establish a divide and rule approach to placating those with the capacity to shout loudest. Will the Society for Democratic Initiatives and other voluntary civil society groups, also be co-opted into the cabinet committee?

It would appear to anyone listening to the minster’s speech at the media ceremony, linking the promise of government land and payment of overdue subvention to SLAJ, with the request for SLAJ to join the cabinet committee that will approve the draft Bill, as a blatant attempt to bribe and win the support of SLAJ.

SLAJ must avoid being seen as selling out on such a noble cause as the fight for an effective legislation that will guarantee citizens, free access to government information.

It may also be recalled that in January 2009, at the handing over of the draft Bill by the civil society groups, Umaru Fofana did appeal to the President to look at the possibility of providing them with land, which was one of President Koroma’s campaign promises in 2007 - to relocate the SLAJ secretariat from its present unsuitable offices.

While there is nothing wrong with the President’s offer of government land to any of its social partners, however, care must be taken to avoid conflict of interest and suspicion of bribery.

In receiving the draft Freedom of Information Bill on the 15 January 2009, President Koroma said that, “as a government and a party, we are committed to enacting the Freedom of Information Bill into Law, as we have always remained committed to the concept of Freedom of Information”. Is the President now prepared to back up his words with real action after fourteen months of dithering?

The President said also that; “just as we promised to give strength to the ACC Act when we were in opposition, we have done that, and we will also enact the Freedom of Information Bill into law.” But when - Mr. President?

If the government was hoping that by launching and taking its ‘Open Government initiative’ to various parts of the country, with regular live radio broadcasts, it would weaken civil society’s demand for a Freedom of Information Bill, it was mistaken.

While government propaganda road shows have their place in the country’s fledgling democratic experiment, no one should deny the importance of empowering citizens, by opening up the corridors and filing cabinets of government departments to free public access.

Such access should also make it unnecessary for citizens constantly having to grease the palms of crooked officials, each time they want to interact with government services, which very often depends on the size of their wallet.

The Freedom of Information Bill must make provision for the establishment of an Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) that will administer and regulate the provisions of the Act. It should be an independent body responsible directly to Parliament.

The role of the Information Commissioner should include; dealing judiciously with all applications for information access; upholding of information rights in the public interest; promoting openness across all government ministries, departments and agencies; and the protection of data privacy for ordinary citizens.

The demand for free access to government information, transparency, probity and openness is growing louder. A government that prides itself on its democratic values has nothing to fear, by granting citizens the right to access government information.

This surely, is the kind of freedom and independence that the people of Sierra Leone prayed for when they gained their independence on 27 April 1961. Will President Koroma be unveiling the Freedom of Information Act, on the day of Sierra Leone’s 49th Independence celebrations?

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