Perception of Journalists on the Freedom of Information Law

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Nov 12, 2019 No Comments ›› Sunday



1.1       Background to the Study

The Freedom of Information law (FoI Act) is Nigeria’s major legislative response to redress the balance of official secrecy, elitism and non-accountable government. It guarantees a “Right to Know” or a right of access to records and information in the custody of public institutions in Nigeria; set standards for what the government could protect from access, and fastened a system of judicial review of denial of access to information (FoI Act No. 4, 2011).

The FoI Act was achieved at the end of nearly two decades of public advocacy and exactly one hundred years after the Official Secrets Act (Cap 03, LFN, 2004) was first introduced into Nigeria as a colonial Order-in-Council. The idea of a freedom of information law for Nigeria was conceived in 1993 by three different organizations working independently of each other. The organizations, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) and the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), subsequently agreed to work together on a campaign for the enactment of a freedom of information Act. The objective of the campaign was to lay down, as a legal principle, the right of access to documents and information in the custody of the government or its officials and agencies as a necessary corollary to the guarantee of freedom of expression (FOI Coalition, 2003).

Over the years, the agitation for the emergence of a freedom of information, has been on the front burner of national discuss, especially among mass communication practitioners in Nigeria (Sambe, 2008). This owes largely to the fact that the expediency of having a legislation that guarantees a high level of freedom information cannot be ignored. It cannot be ignored apparently against the backdrop of the attendant positive effect it could have on any society.

The need for a Nigeria Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) had been emphasized by many jouralist and scholars. For instance, Ogbondah (2005) did note prior to its enactment that: “The National Assembly should enact or guarantee the press and members of the public the right of access to government-held information including computerized records.” Also, at 5th Wole Soyinka Centre Media Lecture held in 2013 threw up significant issues on Nigerian FOIA that impunity has continued despites elaborate media reports on corrupt persons and practices (http://www.chidoonumah.com). Professor Biodun Jeyifo of Harvard’s African American Studies Department, in his lead paper gave a treatise of Nigeria’s disturbing status under the theme “the FOIA and the dictatorship of corruption and mediocrity”. The outcome was that there is need to increase the awareness on the FOIA to Nigerian citizens and propagate its usefulness as a tool to tackle the now endemic issue of corruption, mediocrity and impunity in the country (http://www.chidoonumah.com).

Similarly, Abia (2012) at some point, wrote thus about the FOIA Bill when passed into law as an Act of Parliament, it will make public record and information in the custody of any government-Federal, State or Local available to every person in Nigeria. Accordingly, the right of access of official information, which the Bill grants will be legally enforceable; with the Freedom of Information Act, it will be possible to find out from Governors, Council Chairmen, Ministers, the President or other public officers, details of any transaction conducted in those offices. The law, it is believed, will also give protection to public officers who discover the perpetration of a fraudulent act and reveal is thereby discouraging corruption among public office holders.

More so, Ogbondah (2003) stated that a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. Before now, the challenges posed by information law that inundate the Nigerian constitution, have made the process of data sourcing, gathering and dissemination, seemingly impossible for journalists (Daruwala and Nayak (2007). The realization of this objective is contingent on the freedom of information law to function without any hindrance.

Journalists also set agenda, organizes public debates and discussions, and interprets issues to put them in proper perspectives to make meaningful to audience. Through these roles, lecturers educate, inform, socialize and also confer status, values and significance to issues, thereby serving as the mouth-piece and defender of the voiceless in the institution (Sambe, 2008). This role of gathering and disseminating has not been an easy one largely due to limited freedom occasioned largely by government firm grip and control of the institutions. journalists have had no access to vital information let alone the public regarding the Act. In struggling to get detailed, factual and balanced ideas, journalists have had to continue to nose around for information, exposing themselves to high levels of risk that got them victimized and sometime get killed in the process (Ezeah, 2004).

Unfortunately, the journalists and the media being the watch-dog of the leaders and both cannot successfully carryout this sacrosanct function, without the ample freedom to seek, gather, analyze and disseminate information (Soeze, 2005). Taking a cue from the functional aspect of the freedom of Information Act, Yalaju (2006) averred that the right of access to information is aimed at strengthening the media by securing and protecting freedom of expression and the press particularly.

It is against the above grounds that the FOI Act seeks to make information more available to journalists in the same way it would be available to every other person who might request any information (Edetaen, 2012). It is also expected that with the law in effect, the people would have access to more accurate information, which would enhance the participation of public in decision making. There is no gain saying the fact that the Nigeria Freedom of Information Act was proposed in the context of international affirmation of the rights of citizens to access information held by public bodies as fundamental human right. It is therefore instructive to note that the FOI Act is one of the criteria for gauging a truly democratic state. It goes without saying that democracy is at its best, when the people have all the information that the constitution of the nation permits.

 Conversely, the stiff resistance by most world leaders towards having the FOI law enshrined in their nation’s law books has continued to ignite concerns. Little wonder, Amadi (2003) argued that: “The issue of the enactment of an emphatic Freedom of Information law is still a pawn in the political chessboard of politicians. The reason for sitting on such legislation may not be farfetched from the fact that such venal politicians know that the enactment of such powerful pro-media, pro-people legislation will constitute an effective check on their venality.”

The delay in the passage of Nigerians Freedom of Information Act over a decade after its first proposal in 1999 might not be unconnected to this apprehension amongst Nigeria politicians. Furthermore, if the media must discharge their duties in the spirit of fairness, accuracy, balance and objectivity, then there should not be an alternative to getting information from the primary sources (government and their agencies), the absence of this is likely to lure the journalists into “speculative information” or worse still rely upon secondary sources, which may be misleading and biased on the decoder which are basically the public (Ifeoma and Gregory, 2014). It is therefore against these backdrops that this research seeks to evaluate the FOI law and how well it rubs off on journalists in Nigeria.

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