How to drive the implementation phase of FoI Act

ALTHOUGH much has not been achieved in the last one year of freedom of information

regime in Nigeria, however, certain strategic steps are being experimented to

ensure that the implementation phase of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act begin

to yield bumper harvest

THE Media Rights Agenda (MRA), last week, released a report, entitled, One Year of

Implementation of the FOI Act 2011: Many Rivers to Cross, which has been hailed as

laudable effort that would spur action in activating the Act.

Highlighted in the report, are key observations from MRA monitoring of the

implementation of the Act over the last one year and made recommendations for

improved levels of compliance with the provisions of the Act.

Specifically, the Presidency was urged to prevail on the Inter-Ministerial

Committee on the Implementation of the Act to complete its assignment and release

its roadmap on the way forward for the speedy, effective and efficient

implementation of the Act.

The organization also urged the Attorney General of the Federation to

exert pressure on all public institutions to comply with the provisions of the Act

especially the aspect on the filing their annual FOI reports.

Meanwhile, the journalism teacher at the Lagos State University (LASU), Mr. Tunde

Akanni threw the challenge back at journalists saying, “there have been allegations

of tax evasion on the part of some corporations but the media won’t get us further

details. What about those of corrupt practices everywhere and all we have are

reports of panels. This is why we miss the Next (newspaper) team characterised by

investigations. They didn’t seek FoIA to do their job interestingly. It is not for

nothing that four of its staff have now been nominated for CNN awards besides

others they won recently.”

The renowned journalist who had worked at The Daily Times, National Concord and the

Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) before venturing into academics recommended

“thorough professional orientation” for journalists in order to make efficient use

of the law.

He reasoned further, “Governments at all levels must also wake up to the new

reality. Incidentally, it’s the juicy side that appears to interest government

functionaries. They didn’t forget to build N80m into the budget for its

implementation without spelling out details.

“Practising journalists need be awaken to a fundamental professional challenge to

the effect that the people have the right to know, which complements the statutory

enablement of FOIA. And then I would like to say that not only do people have the

right to know, but in good time too and with utmost precision with technological

advantage of this age and times.

“Non-journalists are already in the race with us, courtesy of technology. So, like

the inception of radio in 1920s spurred substantial creativity in newspaper

journalism, media managers and journalists across all genres need to wake up to the

great call to investigations for which FOIA is most needed.”

According to Akanni, President Jonathan has been doing his best to connect with

people via Facebook. He said, “Another thing though is the reliability of the

messages and the spokesperson. It is so conspicuous that the spokesperson is a

turncoat. President used media a lot and sought to interact with them via Facebook.

But how much did he defer to well-articulated popular opinions? He doesn’t have to

shy away but listen to those who voted him into power. We also need to ask about

the parallel that this government attempted to fashion against?”

He concurred with the perception that the government has been very slow in taking

certain strategic actions corroborating a facebook friend, Fidel Otuya’s view that

“the country is stuck.”

Akanni added: “Where are we headed without inspiring signals from the authorities

if to our government, the pension and petroleum subsidy scams are no big deals?

Even the Malabu/Malabo scandal? Ah! The government to me, wants to transform high

blood pressure into a communicable ailment because the pension and PMS cases alone

will touch all the 150million people easily.”

But the Public Relations expert and founder of Kaduna-based Timex School of

Communication (TsC), Mallam Kabir Dangogo differed on the perception that

government is slow.

“Nigerians can be impatient with their leaders. They said the same thing of past

governments. The former President was not only said to be very slow, they dubbed

him as ‘Mr. Go slow.’ Leadership, management of the economy and the handling of the

various communities with different interests are not done in a hurry.  The

President’s term is not over yet, so people should give him a chance to deliver,

this is more so at this time when the nation is having security issues to contend

with.”

Mallam Dangogo also believed that the president has been engaging Nigerian through

his spokesperson, Dr. Rueben Abati. His words: “Every time someone criticizes the

president, there is an Abati to reply him. For a change, his reply is mature and

professional.  This is unlike in the past when we experienced pollution of the

atmosphere with abuses of the President’s critics.  You cannot fault him on that,

can you? That is what a spokesman is expected to do for his principal. He is

supposed to make friends and reduce enemies.”

But his view is similar on testing the information freedom law. “The FOI Act has

yet to be tested,” he declared, adding, “So, there has not been any remarkable

difference as a result of invoking the Act. The FOI Act is supposed to aid access

to information, but despite this development, there are still bottlenecks to

accessing public records. That is the problem that journalists are confronted with

in the course of their duty.”

If public records are accessed freely, Dangogo insisted, practice of journalism

would be enhanced. “So far, the only person that has filed a case against a state

government to release some records is a former secretary to the state government of

late Yar’Adua. This will strengthen investigation, which is the backbone of

journalism.  Subsequently, it will expose corrupt acts in the society,” he

reasoned.

Another PR practitioner and Media blogger, Yushau A. Shuaib said, “To some extent

there is improvement in media coverage and especially reportage where the online

media are indeed leading but providing enough exposés that could not have been made

public as in the past. The Nigerian media are daringly courageous in discharging

their responsibilities as watchdogs on the society.”

He continued, “The FOI act has not only provided the opportunity but also

approaches and measures to enable easy access to vital information that are

permissible by the law.”

He commented on President Jonathan’s interaction with the people using social media

thus: “I believe his media aides who are responsible for his social media are doing

their best in posting some updates on his social media.

“They should be commended for allowing dissent voices and criticisms from his

followers, especially on his facebook page which by extension relays the true

feelings of the citizens.

“Sometimes, there is shortcoming in his public outburst but as a leader, he has the

right to express his personal opinions. That is his right, which also the citizens

also have in the spirit of freedom of expression. Not every time a leader should be

teleguided. We should allow reactions to guide his subsequent steps.”

Because of too much pressure on the government and also higher public expectation,

Shuaib said government should be excused on the issues of digital migration and

licensing of community radio. He argued, “most of those services could be easily

provided by the private sector once the government provides the enabling

environment for such investments.”

The inability of the government to provide this enabling environment is the grouse

of Ayode Longe of the Media Rights Agenda (MRA). “Government has not put in place

the policy, law or structure needed to ensure Nigeria operates true community

radio,” he said recalling the pronouncement made by President Jonathan since

October 2010 to the effect that the regulatory agency, NBC had been empowered “to

issue community radio licences without recourse to the Presidency.

“In spite of that, what we have for community radio today are academic community

radio stations, not radio stations owned and operated by the community for the

grassroots people. As of today, we know that the NBC is awaiting a signed and

documented directive from the Presidency for it to actually go on to license

community radios. That expected document is not forthcoming about two years after

the statement and so there is really no community radio in Nigeria. This, to me is

clear inaction not slow action.”

Pointedly, Longe faulted government’s attitude to digital migration, saying, “I

have never read or heard on news broadcast what practical step the government is

taking to ensure seamless digital migration before the expiration of the ITU

deadline.

“Most Nigerians have analogue television sets which cannot receive digital signals

without setup boxes. Government is neither enlightening Nigerians on digital

migration and what they need to do nor has it come out with a government policy on

what it is doing about it.”

He scored the media in the efforts to create platform for meaningful engagement

between the government and the governed.

“Essentially, the media has been doing great in the engagement of the President

with the people. The media has served as a platform for that engagement. It

publishes government statement, policies and announcements etc., while also doing

same from the people and the opposition.

“The problem with Nigerian governments however, is that their ‘engagements’ with

the people are usually one-way. They talk, explain and want people to just accept;

they do not listen to the people.”

Communication should be a two-way thing. So, if the government wants its public

engagement to be complete and truly meaningful, it must also create a feedback

system by which it listens to the public. There must be true dialogue between

government and the people in order to reach agreeable solution with input from the

public. That way, the public is carried along and things will work.”

While he expressed dismay on the failure of journalists to boost their performance

by invoking the provisions of FoI law, he was optimistic that fruits of the series

of sensitisation workshops conducted at the beginning of the year around the Act

would begin to manifest in the depth of reportage of critical issues of governance

in the country.

He however insisted that, “journalists need to read, read, and read the law. Why

the emphasis on ‘read’? Because they need to understand the law and its global

guiding principles before they can use it and then be able to enlighten Nigerians.”

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