Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Excuses against freedom

IN the nine years the Freedom of Information Bill wobbled through the National Assembly, excuses held back its passage. The closest it came to being law was two years ago when the National Assembly presented it to then President Olusegun Obasanjo for assent. After dithering, he refused to assent.

His fundamental objection was that the word freedom did not represent the purport of the proposed law. Obasanjo, a well-known enemy of the media acted in expected fashion. His exit has not made much difference in the treatment this important bill gets. Under one subterfuge or the other, the bill keeps suffering setbacks, all said to be for the benefit ofNigerians.

If the concerns are not about national security, there are new worries about the capacity of the media to use the law responsibly.“Let everybody get as much information as he wants and if he decides to misuse it, if in the process you libel anybody it should be criminal,” Senate President David Mark said at Monday’s public hearing on the bill.

“I think that the bill must properly address the issue of whether you should be allowed to disclose your source or not disclose your source,” he added.
Mr. Mark should not be afraid of abuses. Our laws on libel are intact. They are clear on civil and criminal libel. Until the laws are amended, all libels cannot be criminal. Only those who have things to hide should oppose this bill. Many Nigerians benefit from the present secrecy.

If there are violations of national security, the appropriate sanctions should apply. We should not offer politicians and civil servants the opportunity to conceal information under national security. This will kill the essence of the bill.

Issues about this bill tend to neglect the fact that everyone should be the beneficiary. The bill proposes to make information available to all Nigerians and imposes sanctions on public officers who refuse to provide such information within a specified period.
This aspect of the bill gets inadequate attention. There are no budgetary provisions to update government information storage and retrieval systems in a manner that can meet the demands of this bill. The gamut of governments at local, state and federal levels, their various agencies and parastatals have this defect.

It is important that the bill states the form and format for the preservation of government documents, so that they can be amenable to the demands of the bill.

The bill’s tortuous journey fully reflects the hypocrisy about fighting corruption. Can we fight corruption without access to information? Obasanjo heaved his enormous weight against this law in the eight years he confronted corruption with an unforgettable din.

Mr. Mark’s clamour that the bill should throw operations of the media open to public scrutiny is in order. We take his promise of early passage of this bill serious.
The profundity of this proposed law lies in its ability to sanitise the Nigerian society as it strives to curb excesses that are becoming national ethos.