Over the years, there have been calls from civil society groups, notably the Society for Democratic Initiative, Sierra Leone, on the need for freedom/access to information. This call is based on a number of advantages attached to the whole idea of creating an environment wherein, citizens can have access to public information.
When government officials are appointed or elected into public office, it is out of the desire among citizens of a given country to ensure, such officials run the affairs of the state on their (citizens) behalf, since not everybody would be in a position to occupy the citadel of political authority.
As a result, when once an individual is elected into a given public office, he or she is expected to live up to the expectation of those who elected him or her into that office, and this can do done in several ways. An accountable and an open door policy is supposed to be one of the many yardsticks of a nation’s democratic tenets, and if such tenets are to be observed and maintained to their fullest, there is every need for citizens of a given country to have access to public information.
Mindful of the constitutional provisions for the need to impart and disseminate information, especially section 25 of our multiparty 1991 constitutions, there is every need for us to be allowed access to public information, for it is stated, but not limited to the fact that, except with the consent of an individual, no body shall be hindered in the expression of his freedom of expression, and that an individual has the right to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. This in its general sense tells us that, all government officials are expected to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, freedom from interference with his correspondence, freedom to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information.
Be that as it may, efforts have also been made in ensuring that the issue of an accountable and transparent government is achieved, and this is self explanatory in the recent decision to amend the ACC Act, thus giving prosecutorial powers to the commission, but that should not be the end as there is now the need for the government to enact the Freedom Of Information bill into law as that too can help fight against corruption.
Under an access to information policy, citizens are provided with the legal framework to demand copies of public documents and not just the information contained within. In this vein, it must be noted that, even where the information is said to be available in principle, if such information cannot be found, then it cannot be made available to the general public.
The need for access to information must be seen as a fundamental human right as even contained in international human rights instruments notable among them being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948. It says, “everyone has the right of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, retrieve and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers’. This is enough justification why the access to public information must be supported.
Again, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of1966 also reaffirms the need for access to information and successive democracies in the world have taken cognizance of the fact that, in an attempt to get an open and a democratic society, freedom/access to information must be a guaranteed right.
Also, the existence of the Public Order Act of 1965 in the country’s law books must also be looked into if and only if we are to be classed among the first few countries in Africa practicing what is being referred to as ‘democracy’. In a democracy, a free and pluralistic press must be one of the many key words, and we therefore call on the government, both at the central and local level to support the call for the repeal of the Public Order Act of 1965, especially the seditious and criminal aspect of that law.
I am of the belief that, an individual should not be seen as a criminal for expressing his or her opinion on national issues. Opinions must be free and that is what we believe in, and also, the government must have such a belief as well.
Media practitioners have over the years in successive governments become victims of repressive laws in the country, with particular reference to the 1965 Public Order Act due to the difficulties of getting access to public information. Instances being that of Paul Kamara versus the State some years back, and recently, Standard Times publisher versus the State when the publisher made a mistake whilst reporting on the Gaddafi rice saga. Also the case of the New Vision versus the State this year when the paper’s editor was taken to the Independent Media Commission when it reported on the president’s foreign trips, especially the amount alleged to have been used by the President on all those trips
There is also the matter between the Independent Observer and the ex-Transport Minister, who had to rake legal action against the paper’s Managing Editor on grounds of libel. All of the above legal suits were taken by the plaintiffs in those matters because; Media practitioners don’t have access to public information, thus substantiating their reports with such information as evidence. Failure to access public information leads to speculative journalism and this must not be the case.
Arguing further on the need to ensure access to information will demonstrate that, with such a policy in place, the fight against poverty would become a reality. The fight against poverty is a national concern and with access to information, monies meant for the development of a given town would be used judiciously, and as such, encourage foreign investors. Foreign investors would largely not want to invest in a country where government processes are kept in top secret, they would demand access to information to ensure, their investments will be protected by the state.
Transparency in governance allows for government activities to be thoroughly scrutinized by civil society groups, explanations given to the citizens on how monies meant for development are spent, and further allows for a participatory form of democracy. The people must be part of the decision making process and this could be enforced through access to public information.
Practically speaking a country like South Africa recognized the need for access to information some years back and that country is today seen moving miles away from other countries, from the viewpoint of infrastructural and institutional development. A nation cannot operate in a democracy where the citizens are not allowed access to public information.
I am as a journalist also very mindful of the fact that, there are a number of exceptional cases when public information cannot be given out to the public, especially if such information concerns the security of the state, or the information concerning the health condition of an individual.
In this regard, the support of all is needed, especially our law makers. The government must see the need for access to information for the betterment of Sierra Leone. So you can perform your role by advocating to your parliamentarian, or your government functionary to support the call for access to public information.
Author is Information Officer at Society for Democratic Initiative, a Non Governmental Organization that has been advocating for Freedom Of Information.
By John Baimba Sesay