By pa John Baimba Sesay
If there is anybody passionate about the enactment of a Freedom of Information law in Sierra Leone, then it is the Minister of Information and Communications, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo. He has always been very frank and personate in terms of his commitment in getting the law enacted. Just like his boss, President Ernest Bai Koroma, I. B. Kargbo knows the potential values of a law guaranteeing access to information.
The campaign or call it advocacy for such a law in Sierra Leone, has been on for years, even before President Koroma came to power. The past Government of former President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, gave promises in 2006, when Elizabeth Lavalie pledged their commitment towards the enactment of the Bill (http://news.sl ).When President Koroma was asking for the mandate of Sierra Leoneans, he assured them of the possibility of the country getting such a law during his term in office. When the President was also campaigning, he did promise to empower the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) by giving it prosecutorial powers. This he did in 2008, an indication of his commitment to sustaining the country’s democratic credentials.
Practically, I am confident that one day the law will be enacted. I.B. Kargbo is committed to the process, again just as with President Koroma. But what we should also take into account is that we need to allow all arms of Government to operate independently. We should not expect the President to coerce law makers into enacting the law. Let the advocates continue but at the same time, let them allow the arms of Government to operate independently. This is my view.
In fact, we are on the verge of getting the law because, today, we have laws friendly to the concept of freedom of information in Sierra Leone-the Local Government Act 2004 provides that all Local Government meetings should be made public and members of the public can sit and observe such meetings, among other provisions.
The 2008 Anti Corruption Act provides for the release of information to an agent of the Commission, and that failure to comply with this is a criminal offence, the Public Procurement Act 2004 provides among other things that all public procurement documents should be public documents. Also, Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution makes provision for the right of persons to receive and impart ideas and information without interference and this is part of the right to freedom of expression and of speech.
I still recall, being part of a delegation that in 2009 presented a copy of the draft Freedom of Information Bill to the President. At that time I was with the Society for Democratic Initiatives. I can still sense the commitment and sincerity that the President and his Minister of Information demonstrated towards getting the Bill enacted, but there may also be the need for advocates to take a retrospect of what they have done, what they may have forgotten to do along the process and see how to improve on their advocacy for such a law.
I once submitted in an article I wrote over a year ago, that there was the urgent need for the advocates to get religious bodies fully involved in the campaign. I stated at the time that campaigners in Sierra Leone may want to use or better put, intensify the use of strategies like the building of collations, especially in terms of expanding on coalition membership and strength. The need for stronger partnership with institutions like the Human Rights Commission, the ACC, could be of great necessity. Nigeria had to employ strategies like “direct lobbying of legislators and top government officials through face-to-face meetings, letters and memoranda, phone calls and SMS text messages, ” and generally building strong partnerships with Government agencies in Nigeria like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and the Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, among other government agencies. This is according to Edetaen Ojo, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, based in Lagos, Nigeria.
There were also trainings of grassroots and community based organizations at both the federal and state levels. A broad-based coalition of more than two hundred members was also established as part of the strategies in Nigeria, as well as training of Information Officers in government institutions.
Civil society groups should first have a clear understanding of what the concept is all about. They should be seen working with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). Again, it would be bad if advocates attempt to make this a political issue. In my view, when you advocate, you should not relent and you should not be seen wanting to make political gains out of a given situation. Politics, I hold the view, should be left to the political class. There is also the need to allay the fears of the political class that an access to information law does not only stand to benefit media practitioners, but the general public as a whole. The advocates should try to facilitate a greater public participation in this.
Another major challenging area is the aspect of classified and non-classified information. Classified information is crucial to the consolidation of peace and democracy. Classified information is material, collected or created by a government that is subject to limitations on its release to the general public. It has restrictions on its handling based on security concerns, and may have penalties for its unauthorized release (see en.citizendium.org/wiki/Classified information). This should also not be ignored by the campaigners in Sierra Leone. They should take cognizance of state security in their advocacy.
The bottom line though is advocacy should be the best option here and there is the strong commitment on the part of the President and his Government to listen to the wishes of the people as long as they will bring gains to the country.
President Koroma is a democrat; he knows what a Freedom of Information law means. If the ACC can operate independently it means President Koroma’s commitment can’t be put to a test. He runs an open and transparent government. The existence of the Open Government Imitative is in line with the principle of people accessing information or asking questions on governance issues. However, we should now get to the drawing board, get a broad based campaign where all players should be involved including, especially SLAJ. It is not a matter of who did what or who took the lead but it should be a collective effort. SLAJ can’t just be ignored by whosoever is advocating for this law.
This is my take.