On Public Freedom to Access Government Information

by suleimanharuna

The concept of opening up Government to citizens has
existed for centuries. Sweden was the first country to
pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) Law in 1766 and
was followed over a century later by Columbia in 1888.
The Swedish law was actually said to have been
inspired by a Chinese practice of public disclosure
dating back to thousands of years. In Africa, however,
information disclosure is a new phenomenon. The law
was first signed by South – Africa in 2000 followed by
Zimbabwe, Angola and Uganda by 2004. The journey of
FOI in Nigeria actually started in September 2004,
when the House of Representatives passed a Bill For An
Act To Make Public Records And Information More Freely
Available. The Senate has also passed the bill for
Presidential approval and signing into law.

Issues of freedom of information have been covered by
various international conventions, charters and
statements. The UN General Assembly in 1964 averred
that ‘freedom of information is a fundamental human
right and is the touchstone for all freedoms to which
the UN is consecrated’. The AU Declaration of
principles on freedom of expression in Africa part IV
posits that “Public bodies hold information not for
themselves but as custodians of the public good and
everyone has the right to access the information”.
Others include the African Charter on Human and
Peoples Rights – Article 9, which states that ‘every
individual shall have the right to receive
information’ while the ECOWAS treaty – article 4g
(Fundamental Principles) upholds the charter of AU.

The content of a Freedom of Information instrument
usually differ from one country to another but certain
elements reoccur in each case. There is the issue of
coverage. The law usually covers all Government
institutions, especially those that receive public
money. Another issue is that of exemptions, which
cover national security, personal privacy, public
security, commercial secrets and internal
deliberations of organizations. Enforcement is another
crucial element of the law and it provides for the
establishment of an agency to receive complaints from
members of the public bordering on denial of access.
In Nigeria, either the Code of Conduct Bureau or
Public Complaints Commission can take the
responsibility of The Ombudsman – the name given to
such an agency in other countries. It is also
necessary to have a Citizens Advice Department in the
establishment for those who need guidance. The last
element is ease of access. Institutions must make
available information in a manner that it can be
easily understood by any member of the Public.

The UN Principles on Freedom of Information as
espoused in 2001 include maximum disclosure of any
information requested as well as the obligation to
publish information for public perusal and scrutiny.
The Ministry of Finance has blazed the trail in this
regard with publication of monthly allocations to all
tiers of Government in newspapers and the internet.
The FCT also publishes information about land
allocation and sale of Government property, while the
Federal Ministry of Information advertises information
about tenders. The promotion of open Government is
another principle. It is also provided that the scope
of exceptions to the coverage of the law should be
limited and must be clearly and narrowly drawn. They
must also be subjected to strict ‘harm’ and ‘public
interests’ tests. Another principle is the
entrenchment of processes to facilitate the access.
Costs too are important; individuals should not be
deterred from making requests for information by
excessive costs. Meetings of public bodies are also
expected be open to the Public. Another important
principle is that disclosure takes precedence over
other conflicting legislations. The case of access to
assets declarations of public officers may serve as an
example in this regard. The protection of whistle
blowers is another important principle, as it will
encourage the spirit of diligence and vigilance in the
members of the public.

Those who may take the best advantage of this law are
the Civil Society Organizations (CSO) who, as pressure
groups would want one thing or another done by
Government, or from Government. It may be
investigation of corruption, abuse of due process, or
human rights etc. Another group is the media, who will
now have unfettered access to all the facts. The
general public usually seems to be contented with
going through CSOs to air their grievances rather than
do so by themselves.

Nigeria is well prepared for the implementation of
the law. This is because structures are already in
place to ensure its smooth take off. The reform in the
Public service has reduced corruption substantially.
All Federal establishments now have SERVICOM, or
Service charters, which outline services they render
as well as the grievance redress mechanism in case of
failure to provide such services. Another is OPEN –
Oversight of Public Expenditure on NEEDS. This enables
citizens to track or monitor budgetary allocations
down to expenditure. In seoul Korea, a programme with
the same acronym of OPEN also exists, but means
‘Online Procedures for Enhancement of Civil
Applications’ and it enables citizens to monitor
administrative procedures relating to applications for
permits or other approvals. In terms of the principle
of publication, the cases of Ministry of Finance, FCTA
and FMI have already been mentioned as having
complied, while NEITI has already ensured maximum
disclosure in the extractive industry sector.

For the successful implementation of the FOI Act, it
will be necessary to build public awareness and change
the level of apathy among the citizenry, to make them
vigilant enough to observe and make enquires when
faced with breaches. It is also necessary to build an
informed civil service, which is ready to change from
the culture of bureaucracy and embrace transparency
and accountability. It has been said that ‘lack of
accountability creates rent by giving those in custody
of information something with which to trade’. It is
also good news that the service is embracing ICT as
new information management systems are being developed
for various functions in the service. Stronger
regulatory and enforcement mechanisms are also being
introduced in the system while Anti- Corruption and
Transparency Units (ACTU) have been set up in all
establishments and are being strengthened for local
MDA enforcement. All this will complement the
implementation of the FOI Law.

Information disclosure adds social, economic and
political value to the nation. It supports sustainable
development, encourages equitable economic growth,
supports decentralization, improves efficiency of
public administration and strengthens responsible
media reporting. It also cements public trust and
supports human rights. It should therefore be a
uniting factor between a suspicious public and an
accountable public service.