Sierra Leone must be commended for being among the countries advocating g for an access to information law. This is because we, as a people, know the values attached to the access to information especially in pushing for an open government.
Simply put access to information is all about ensuring that information held by public officials should be made available to the public, with due consideration to the exceptional cases like information dealing with state security, international relations et al.
The advocacy for this law in Sierra Leone has over the years taken a lot of dimensions; there had been political statements and commitments towards getting the Bill enacted; there has been, and is still the involvement of civil society groups in the campaign, and of course there is a strong complementary support from the media in the advocacy, especially the media parent body-SLAJ.
Therefore, when the Commonwealth Human Right Initiatives invited me to Ghana for a workshop on People’s access to information, I saw it as a way of showcasing our strides in Sierra Leone in the campaign.
The workshop was, among other things aimed at examining the nature and effectiveness of mechanisms that exist in Ghana for access to information, especially in the context of police and the criminal justice system, budget-making process, asset declaration for public officials and local government.
It was also aimed at identifying mechanisms for strengthening information flow and access and to plan strategies for deepening the access to information campaign in the West African countries like Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and the Gambia.
The workshop was also a way of enabling participants share their experience on how the campaign for access to information has been like in their respective countries. From the various presentations, it was apparent that no country in the West African sub-region could boast of having an access to information law.
In Nigeria, the campaign was started some ten years ago by civil society groups and it was almost enacted during the last parliament of General Olusegun Obasanjo, but his refusal to give assent to it made the bill not to see the light of day. In fact the Freedom Of Information Bill is reported to be the oldest Bill in the Nigeria House of Law Making.
Much has not been achieved in Ghana, in terms of pushing for the promulgation of an access to information law in the law books of that country. It is interesting to note that the newly elected President, Professor John Atta Mills has spoken of his willingness to enact the Bill. However there are a number of challenges that should be met in Ghana in the campaign for access to information.
Mr Akoto Ampaw is a Lawyer in Ghana and also head of the Human Rights Committee in the Ghana Bar Association. From his presentation, it came out that their freedom of information bill still needs further review so as to meet international standards. There is the greater need for the Bill to cover private bodies that are financed by the public or whose activities infringe on the rights of others.
This is one thing the Sierra Leonean bill has tried to handle, and besides, there is the need for an independent body to be responsible for the implementation of the bill when passed into law in Ghana. The Gambia has not done much comparatively in terms of advocating for the enactment of an access to information law, and this is not surprising though. The political atmosphere in the Gambia is one that does not completely allow for free press, let alone hard criticism, as compared to other West African countries.
Liberia comparatively has been pushing further, just like Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. However, they too have their challenges which are almost similar to other countries. Boastfully India is one of the countries that could today boast of an access to information law and so, a presentation of the Indian experience by Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and also an Indian, was quite revealing.
There were a lot of things and ideas learnt from the Indian experience especially the role that civil society groups played in the advocacy for an access to information law. And this is almost the case in the Sierra Leone experience where, there is a coalition of civil society groups in the advocacy for an access to information law. Also the Indian experience revealed how the right to access to public held information has been helping government in the fight against corruption, and how that has been benefiting the citizens of that country.
What also came out during the deliberations was that, there has always been a misconception that access to information advocacy is only meant to help media people. This is the case in Nigeria, Ghana and even in Sierra Leone, and Liberia as well, to the point that in Liberia, the campaign is seemingly in the hands of Media people.
However, this is not the case and if we are to be honest, this is an advocacy that stands to benefit our national governments. Take Sierra Leone as a case study, with an access to information law, the campaign to minimise corruption will become a success. Not to talk about how it stands to help in the drive to ensure poverty reduction, and in trying to get an improved educational standard.
Recently there was a courtesy call made to the President Ernest Bai Koroma by SLAJ and SDI and one thing that came up was the need to get the FOI bill enacted. We are looking forward to the commitment made by the president, because he too knows how this Bill, if enacted will help him succeed. African governments must be willing to get laws that guarantee access to information. Constitutional provisions that guarantee free press and expression must be backed by access to information laws.
In Sierra Leone we have access to information friendly laws like the Local Government Act of 2005 and the Procurement Act. These laws must be supported by an access to information law so as to defeat laws that undermine the basic principles of participatory democracy like the Official Secret Act and the Public Order Act in Sierra Leone.
We must be sincere in what we say, especially in our commitment for a freedom of information law, because, even the United States President Barack Obama, when addressing staff of the White House revealed that a freedom of information act helps ensure a transparent and an accountable government in the USA. So what are we waiting for in Serra Leone for such a law? firstname.lastname@example.org is my email
By John Baimba Sesay- 077-838457/076-477100