Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act contains more denials of access to information than actual granting of access. As for the citizenry, generally Nigerians are still not appreciative about the contribution, and the role, of the media in a healthy democracy. There needs to be a greater understanding that the media is an independent social institution that serves as a channel of information for the electorate. An independent and critical media is fundamental to a democracy.
By DADA, Benjamin Opeyemi:
For the media to fulfil its role in a democracy, it must be free and safe. In this view the Freedom of Information Act gives every Nigerian and by extension the media, the legal right of access to information, records and documents held by government and private bodies carrying out public functions. These laws are intended to sustain the concept of media freedom captured in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The Nigerian constitution and the FOI Act have adequately provided for “press freedom” but not “press safety” while in their line of duty. In recent times, a large number of journalists have been harassed while others have lost their lives. In 2012 alone, 13 Nigerian journalists were killed while in active service, making it the highest in the history of the country since independence in 1960. This strikes psychological fear in journalists. They avoid reporting certain issues because of the fear of losing their lives. Hence, there is need for the government to amend the FOI Act and make it more progressive, one that will ensure the protection of journalists’ lives.
Recently, the Nigerian police force while acting on a presidential order detained four journalists of the Abuja-based Leadership newspapers. Their arrest came after they published a story in April 2013 that President Goodluck Jonathan had issued orders to frustrate efforts by the opposition to unite ahead of the 2015 elections. The journalists had acquired a leaked memo from which they got the sensational information. The story also hinted at plans by the government to influence the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), to remove the fuel subsidy, among other plans contained in the memo endorsed by President Jonathan. It is, however, unacceptable and outrageous that in a democratic country that has a working FOI Act, the presidency could contemplate, let alone order the arrest of journalists for carrying out their constitutionally protected duty of reporting the actions of government.
The media have constitutionally stated roles but the FOIA has whittled this down. Section 22 of the constitution states that: “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility of the government to the people”. However, the FOIA only section in 1 and 3 grants access to information but as many as 10 sections deny the public access to information. Thus, juxtaposing the Nigerian constitution and the FOIA, it is obvious that the act deters journalists from carrying out their constitutionally stated objective, which is imparting information to the public. There are numerous sections in the act that denies the media access to information.
With the advent of the FOIA, the Nigerian government now manipulates information before letting it out to the media. Taking into consideration the saga of the Nigerian Foreign reserve where the political leaders were condemned for deliberately distorting the facts, misleading the public, the media on their own part can only publish the information being released by the government officials. A former Vice-President of the World Bank, Oby Ezekwesili, has accused the federal government of mismanaging about $45 billion foreign reserves and $22 billion excess crude savings the Obasanjo administration left for the late Yar’Adua administration, succeeded by the present regime. Since her allegation, several top government officials, including the Minister of Information, Laraban Maku; and the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Public Affairs, Doyin Okupe; have risen in stout defence of the government accusing Ezekwesili of calculated blackmail. The consequence of this is that, with the presence of the FOIA, the actual fact which the government ought to give out has been hidden under the guise of the information that should not be made public backed up by the Section 12(1) of the FOIA which states that: “A public institution may deny an application for any information the disclosure of which may be injurious to the conduct of international affairs and the defence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. Consequently, the media/public cannot request for such information because the FOIA does not permit them to do so.
In conclusion I argue that the first step to freedom of information in Nigeria has been taken with the passing of the Freedom of Information Bill into law. However, this giant step is not the final step because the law does not help journalists because the government consistently breaks it.
The current FOIA is a chain around the media’s neck, in Nigeria, which is a limiting factor in the access to information. Thus, the only way to break free from this chain is to review the FOIA, particularly the exemptions which are limiting the freedom of the media, and hinders the role of the media in a democracy.
DADA, Benjamin Opeyemi is a B.Sc. Political Science and International Relations student in Nigeria.