One year after FoI Act… It’s motion without movement

T is exactly one year today, when the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act became

operational in Nigeria, as President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan assented to it on May

28, 2011.

It took the promoters of the bill 12 years of intense campaign and lobbying before

the dream of enlisting the country in the comity of nations, where freedom of

information regime has become part and parcel of living, could be realised.

Described as legal instrument that would not only radicalize reportorial engagement

of journalists, there was high expectation that investigative journalism would

flourish again, all to the glory of fostering democratic process.

Indeed, the Act is very explicit in its mission. It is simply to “make public

records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public

records and information, protect public records and information to the extent

consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy, protect

serving public officers from adverse consequence for disclosing certain kinds of

official information without authorization and establish procedures for the

achievement of those purposes and; for related matters.”

In line with The Guardian’s tradition of feeling the pulse of the nation as regards

the access to information regime as well as the current administration’s social

contract with Nigerians, opinions of stakeholders in the media industry are sampled

and the responses are a mixed grill and food for thought.

They were asked to assess the reportorial engagement of journalists with FoI Act in

the last one year, with suggestions on how media performance can be enhanced.

Not only that, President Jonathan is also put on the slab with emphasis on whether

he is engaging Nigerians proactively, using the media as a tool for interaction.

While attempt is also made to ascertain the veracity of the perception that the

government is very slow at taking action concerning certain issues in the media

industry, for instance, digital migration and licensing of community radio.

The Dean of School of Communications, Lagos State University, Prof. Lai Oso said:

“One is yet to see any major difference. The media organisations are yet to put the

FOI law into use. Only the NGOs have tried this law. This supports the argument

that a law is useless or ineffective if not put to use/operated.”

Media organizations, the communications scholar insisted, “must develop the

required resources to investigative journalism. The FOI law is required for serious

investigative journalism not for routine news reporting. Investigative journalism

required money, time and resources.”

He advocated reorientation among media managers and journalists. “A market driven

journalism will be more interested in sensational news than in serious political

and public affair journalism, which enhances the democratic process.”

According to him, the government has not done much in the area of engaging people

proactively. “It seems the challenges are so overwhelming that the government media

strategy is reactive.

“The slow motion is the defining character of this government,” Prof. Oso declared,

adding, “everything is in slow motion. Remember that the president once said he is

never in a hurry in taking decisions.”

The Executive Secretary, the Nigerian Press Council (NPC), Mr. Bayo Atoyebi

observed a psychological boost in the confidence of journalists with the advent of

the FoI Law, “but it has not reflected in any considerable level operationally,” he

noted.

Continuing, Atoyebi said, “So far, reported instances of testing the law, by

invoking it and following it up, some to the courts, have come mainly from civil

society organisations. Our experience at the Press Council, from the two occasions

of capacity building on the FoI law show that familiarity and usage among

journalists for now is tepid.”

Media performance can be enhanced, he stated, “by first understanding the law and

making bold to use it and grow our reportage from speculative to the factual.”

He believed strongly the government has been engaging Nigerians, saying, “largely,

the media spokespersons have been proactive and sometime promptly reactive.”

He described “digitisation as a universal migration challenge that started here

late. A white paper would set the tone for migration action,” decrying however

that, “the initial deadline set as a safety valve and buffer before the main

deadline has pated away.”

For Community radio, apart from the coalition advocating for CR, he said, the level

of awareness in the geographic, economic or trade interest groups and co-operatives

has been low. “There is a misconception about the radio for the community by the

community. Regrettably, some TV stations and radio dubbed community are NOT. So

far, it is only the academic community that has advanced, except also that they

wrongly tend to compete and operate like commercial stations,” he explained.

In the view of Akin Akingbulu of Institute for Media and Society (IMESO),

government’s procedure on digital migration is not only faulty, but also very slow.

He clarified: “The government should have taken public inputs into the report of

the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on Transition from Analogue to Digital

Broadcasting before taking it to Federal Executive Council (FEC) for action. Even

then, the FEC action came very late. Recall that several years ago, government had

set June 17 2012 as Nigeria’s switchover date to digitisation.

“The fact that decision is just being taken on the PAC report this year (2012)

implies that the transition date will have to be postponed. Even now that FEC has

deliberated on the report, the date of release of white paper is uncertain and

nobody is sure if it will be made publicly available when it is released.”

Leading an organization (IMESO) that champions the advocacy for the establishment

of the community radio since 2003, Akingbulu is embittered that, “Government has

been embarrassingly slow. President Jonathan told the whole world in October 2010

that his government had approved the guidelines submitted by the National

Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the commencement of licensing of community radio

stations. More than 18 months later, the decision has not been implemented.

Government’s spokespersons continue to shift dates and confuse the public on the

issue. The whole world is watching the government on this issue, and it has to

demonstrate sincerity by delivering on the presidential pronouncement of October

2010.”

The verdict of former President, Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Mallam Garba

Shehu, who is now Media Consultant to the former Vice President Atiku Abubakar is

that the reportorial environment has remained largely untouched by the Freedom of

Information law.

“It should by now be clear to journalists and the other stakeholders that the

problem of the flow of information in Nigeria is not one that can be solved by

laws. It’s a cultural problem. In this country, we don’t have the culture of

disclosure. In India, the U.K. and many other countries, citizens feel a sense of

duty to report wrong-doing. In this country, they will just see it, keep their

mouths shut and move on. All the policemen in the world cannot give Nigerians

safety without the disclosure of wrong-doing.”

And for the media performance to be enhanced through the instrumentality of FoI

Act, Shehu canvassed awareness creation and attitudinal change. “Nigerians must

have a more positive attitude towards the media – to see them for what they are,

the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Media have a governance role. The watchdog role and

the surveillance of the environment is a most critical role for a country like our

own. In country of growing lawlessness and impunity as we have, Nigerians had

better realize that the fear of exposure is a far more important deterrent to

wrong-doing than litigation which, as we see every day, often leads to the

discharge and acquittal of high profile criminals.”

However, the media manager doesn’t think the Jonathan administration has an

effective media strategy. “I believe they are clinging on to the old tricks of the

combination of carrots and corruption in dealing with the media. Of course, we are

also witnessing the alarming development in which journalists as whistle blowers

are being killed. Journalists must have a safe environment in which to contribute

to national development. I am still digesting their decision to ban all but NTA

cameras in the State House. This is a record-breaking decision, and one that is

restrictive of the freedom of the media.”

On digital migration, Mallam Shehu “used to think that this country was doing well,

and we might get there before the most other countries of the world. I think, we

are not doing badly in this area. Licensing on the other hand, is the most opaque,

tardy, undemocratic process going on in the country. It is far more hideous and

open to corruption than even land allocation,” he lamented.

To the coordinator of the International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade,

“it is difficult to speak of remarkable difference as most journalists have

actually not read and properly digest the content of the FOI Act.

“But journalists who have participated in capacity building programmes as organized

by media support groups like the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and International Press

Centre (IPC) as well as the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) have pledged to use it in

doing more investigative reports.”

Arogundade however insisted that performance “can be enhanced if the media use it

as a tool for investigative journalism in general by ensuring accuracy and

reliability of facts alluded to in reports.

“FOI Act can also be deployed by the media as a tool to carry out its oversight

functions as envisaged by section 22 of the 1999 Constitution. One important area

is the reporting of accountability and anti-corruption issues; the media should use

FOI Act request to assess the level of compliance with relevant laws including the

Fiscal Responsibility Act, the Public Procurement Act (PPA, 2007), the Electoral

Act (especially aspects of it dealing with political finance monitoring) among

others.

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