‘Media houses should use FoI to tackle graft, fake news’
Nine years after the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) was promulgated, stakeholders in the media industry have expressed concern over journalists’ inability to use the act efficiently.
Many of them argued that COVID-19 pandemic and the corruption in high places that are being unveiled by the day were enough to show that journalists were not doing enough.
Specifically, the act, which was signed into law in May 2011 by the country’s immediate past president, Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, was aimed at making public records and information available to whosoever needs it as long as it is consistent withpublic interest.
Under the act, an organisation must provide the needed information within seven working days and failure to comply; the journalist can approach the court.
Professor of Applied Communication, University of Ibadan, Ayobami Ojebode, said, “the FOI is a good piece of legislation but no legislation can change anything if it does not have the sympathy of the judiciary. The judiciary, in my view, has not supported FOI Act related matters well enough. There are also existing laws such as, the Official Secret Act that directly conflict with the FOI Act. These laws support refusal to release information; FOI Act forbids refusal to release information. Until these archaic and counterproductive legislations are repealed, the FOI Act cannot work well.”
FOI Act, he argued, “is the most important tool against corruption in public institutions. It is therefore connected to the fight against corruption, to development — especially our accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals. Imagine if there was transparency in the dealings of the military and military contracts, in the business of the NDDC, imagine how much money would have been saved? Imagine what such money can do in our schools and on our pot-holed roads? But the FOI Act has not been implemented effectively.”
Specifically, he noted that the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and others continue to keep the FOI on the front burner of the nation’s attention. However, “we haven’t made good progress in the use of the FOI law. A study conducted long ago shows that Ghana, which did not have FOI, still did better in terms of press freedom than Nigeria, which had FOI. Out of frustration, MRA and others have constructed a Hall of Shame where they list names of those who obstruct FOI Act and its applications.”
Ojebode expressed optimism that someday, Nigerian leaders would be civil enough to be too ashamed to be found on such a list and so they would hate to obstruct FOI Act request.
According to Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Lagos, Ralph Akinfeleye, ‘we pursued it for almost 12 years. President Obasanjo refused to sign it, but President Jonathan must be given credit for eventually signing the bill into law.”
Akinfeleye, who is also a Council member, World Journalism Education Congress, said, “FOI Act prevents hoarding of information, spread of fake news. It also ensures equitable distribution of resources and effective application of federal character. It provides checks and balances on public office holders. It can also be used for research and can protect national security.”
While saying it gives room for adequate planning, asked, “if you don’t know the numbers of people in your country, how can you plan?”
He added, “unfortunately, we have not been able to use it well. The media is too lukewarm. The media should move fast and see to the enforcement of this beautiful law that can serve as the engine room for sustainable democracy. So, I’m calling on NUJ, Guild of Editors and media professionals to use the act for the benefit of all. A law that is not being used or tested is useless and the government is taking advantage of that. There is also need for synergy between public officers and the media to make public information readily available to the people. We also need to test it during the COVID-19 pandemic because information is being hoarded by government officials to the extent that the space was open for fake news.”
Akinfeleye, however, identified enforcement as a challenge. According to him, “when the bill was first passed into law, we were the first to test it. We asked the National Assembly to tell Nigerians their total package but they refused to disclose it and we went to court. But the judiciary continued to adjourn the case.”
The Programmes Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Ayo Longe, said the media has a potent tool that is just lying fallow.
The Nigerian media, he observed, has not properly used the FOI. “The law has been passed but the media is not doing anything. What the journalists need to do is just to make the request. People who are using it the most are civil society organisation. We have done several trainings for journalists and we have given them case studies. We have actually published that we are giving free legal service to any journalist that is denied of any information while putting the act to test. We ‘ll go to court on his or her behalf free of charge. The media is the fourth estate of the realm, and for people to believe in the media, they have to be given credible stories. Journalists on the Features Desks should use it more for investigative journalism.”
Continuing, he argued that Heather Brookes, a US citizen living in UK, made several FOI request that at a point, members of the parliament wanted to change the clause of their own FOI Act to exempt parliament from the act. “Of course, the opposition fought against it. She made many lawmakers to resign because some of them were using public funds for private business. Brookes won several awards and she wrote books on using the FOI,” he stated.
The FOI Act, he further explained, could reveal things that are hidden or unknown or to break stories. Several panels have been set up and white papers have come out of it but that is the end. An investigation is going on in the National Assembly but the question is what will be the end? Journalists can follow up and publish—they can make an FOI request to the panel.
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