Promoting and Protecting Press Freedom & Freedom Of Expression In Nigeria

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 MEMORANDUM ON THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION BILL PRESENTED TO THE SENATE OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

 

Introduction

 

In the main, the Freedom of Information (FOI) which is also known as the Public's Right to Know seeks to give the press and other citizens the right of free access to information held by government.

 

There has been several efforts by the media and civil rights advocacy groups to propel Nigerian into the club of progressive countries that have liberalised access to public information and for the abrogation of the Official Secret Act. However Military authorities had consistently rebuffed the moves.

 

The return to democratic rule on May 29, 1999 ushered in a new window of opportunity for the media to push for a Freedom of information Act. This effort led to the Bil1 before this National Assembly and it is in furtherance of the possible passage that this Public hearing is being held by the Senate. The public acclaim received by the HONOURABLE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVE when it passed the bil1last year is indicative of the Public support for this bill

 

In the explanatory memorandum, attached to the draft bill the proposers slated:

 

I.          "This Act seeks to provide a right of access to public information o records kept by government, public institutions and or private bodies caring out public functions for citizens and non citizens of the country.

 

2.         This Act will increase the availability of public records and information to citizens of the country in order to participate more effectively in the making and administration of laws and policies and to promote accountability of public officers.

 

3.         The Act also seek to provide the disclosure of public records and information by public officers without authorization thereof provided it is for public interest and such officers are protected from adverse consequences flowing from such disclose.

 

4.         This Act is intended to complement and not replace existing procedures for access to public records and information and is not intended to limit in any way access to those types of official information that have, hitherto been normal1y available to the general public".

 

WHERE ARE WE ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND ACCESS TO INFORMATION?

 

1.         It is to be stated from the onset that the rights to freedom of expression in Nigeria is limited by the following sections in the constitution.

 

S.392 (b) "provided that no person, other than the government of the federation or of  a state or any other person or body authorised by the President in fulfillment  of a condition laid down by an act of the National Assembly shall own, establish or operate a television or wireless broadcasting station for any purpose whatsoever.

 

S.39 (3) nothing in this section shall invalidate any law reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

 

(a)        for the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of courts, or regulating telephone, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition cinematography film or

 

(b)        Imposing restrictions upon persons holding office under the government of the Federation or of a state, members of the armed forces of the federation or members of the Nigerian Police Force or other government security services or agencies established by law.

 

S. 45: Nothing in section 39 shall invalidate any law that reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

 

(a)        In the interest of defence public society, public order public 111orali~y or public health or

 

(b)        For the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons"

 

The world over, Governments are wary of the Press having access to public information. Aside from the issue of national security matters which everyone agrees must be protected, public servants in Nigeria classify every bit of information secret. It has got to a ridiculous extent that even public information bulletins have "secret" stamp placed on them!

 

In many cases the fears of public officials in hoarding public information are not based on public interest but to cover up shady deals and shoddy handling of public affairs. Such fears perhaps prevented the first National Assembly from passing the bill even though all major issues and fears raised by members were allayed at various consultations on the FOI Bill.

 

With regard to the MEDIA, this is the only organ given a role by the Nigerian Constitution without any enabling power to perform the role. Section 13 of the 1999 Constitution (the first section under Chapter 11: Fundamental Objectives and Directive, Principles of State Policy") stated that "it shall be the duty and responsibility of all organs of government, and of all authorities and persons. . . to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of this chapter of the constitution". This section empowers the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary to carry out its responsibilities and such powers to perform were given in different sections of the constitution.

However, the Press was given responsibility under Section 22 thus" 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 and accountability of the Government to the people" (emphasis mine). But the Press had no powers given to it to carry out this Herculean responsibility on behalf of the people.

 

The best constitutional provision that would have enhanced freedom of expression that Nigerians and the Press never got was contained in the 1995 draft Constitution, which ironically was a product of the Abacha's constitutional conference. And if the provisions had been incorporated in the 1999 constitution' perhaps this BILL would not have been necessary. It would have provided more conducive constitutional cover for the press and give Nigerians the avenue to hold their government more accountable and help the transparency process.

  

S.35 of the 1995 draft constitution gave every Nigerian including the Press the right to

"(a)      ensure the eradication corrupt practices and abuse of power

  (b)        protect and preserve public property and

  (c)        fight against misappropriation and squandering of public funds"'.

 

Section 40(3) also stated "the print, electronic and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times uphold the provision of this constitution and in giving coverage to any news or programme ensure the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people and of 'the people to the government".

 

S.40 (4) "Every citizen of Nigeria shall be entitled to know and be informed of 'the activities of the state and any of its organs and agencies".

 

Therefore, Compared to the standards in the US and Europe, the status of press freedom AND ACCESS TO PUBLIC INFORMATION in Nigeria is far below those of the United States of America and Europe.

 

It stands to reason that the press is less able to perform its role as a vehicle for democratic evolution and purveyors of balanced public opinion in Nigeria than in the countries of USA and Europe.

 

The Nigeria constitution has not provided enough conducive environment for the press to perform the constitutional duty imposed on it by virtue of section 22 of the constitution.

 

STATUS FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LAW AROUND THE WORLD

 

In response to growing demands by civil societies, the media and leaders in many counties, governments around the world are passing legislations intended to give the public and the press more access to government and public affairs information hitherto held under secret vaults with lags such as 'classified' or secret have been made in 40 countries since Sweden's pioneering effort in 1766 Freedom of the Press Act thirty more countries are in the process of passing the laws under different titles. The process has been accentuated in the last ten years by international demands for more transparency in governance being speak headed by World Bank and IMF as a way to reduce corruption in the public sector, pressure in new democracies and long established ones to promote human rights and freedom.

 

While only Germany and Switzerland are yet to enact legislations for freedom of information in Western Europe. Almost all counties in Central and Eastern Europe have adopted law in favour of access to information.

 

Many countries in Africa and Asia are currently reviewing their laws to follow suit. USA had since 1966 enacted its Freedom of Information Act. The European Union charter of fundamental Rights gives a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents under Article 42. Specifically, the EU introduced the Code of Access to EU documents in 1993.

 

While the Commonwealth Law Ministers adopted the Principles or Freedom of information in

May 1999.

 

 

 

WHY THE NEED FOR FOI IN NIGERIA?

 

Nigeria can not swim against the tide of world wide acceptance of Freedom of information as one of the indices of good governance. Therefore Nigeria must join the World in enhancing the democratic process through reinforcing the peoples right to know the activities of their government.

 

The present administration has embarked on a number of reforms that are fundamental to the deepening of the democratic process and achievement of good governance. Such reforms include:

 

  • The Anticorruption policies and programmes

 

  • The Due Process

 

  • Budgetary Revenue Allocation reforms

 

  • Banking reforms and Corporate governance reforms

 

The Freedom of Information Act is the missing link to make the reforms achieve the desired result in reorientating those who run public institutions on behalf of the people

 

In summary the FOI IS NEEDED NOW TO ACHIEVE THE FOLLOWING:

 

  • GOOD GOVERNANCE

  • TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNT ABILITY

  • TO CURB CORRUPTION AND ASSOCIATED VICES

  • TO ENHANCE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

  • TO ENABLE THE PRESS PERFORM ITS CONSTITUTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY

 

The Senate must therefore move with speed to pass the Act so as to complete the loop.

 

But one more thing - The operators (i.e.) the Press must be helped at this time to rise up to the challenges thrown up by the FOI. One of the fears of the lawmakers who once had the opportunity of discussing the bill is the pervasive poor and deteriorating standards of journalism practice. With the ethics now at low ebb and experienced hands out of the vocation owing to poor standards, there is the need to focus attention on uplifting the conditions of service and practice of the media professionals.

 

For instance the present situation where media practitioners are owed salaries and allowances for upward of 3 months sometimes up to 6 months is untenable and send such practitioners to the limits of existence, and this give room for temptations. Putting enormous powers in the hands of such persons who are under pressure of existence put the whole society in danger. The Media Enhancement Bill which will guarantee minimum standard of living, pension, life insurance coverage, and above all inviolable code of ethics must also be passed by the National Assembly

 

FOR AND ON BEHALF OF THE BUREAU FOR PUBLIC OPINION

 

OLUSEGUN ILORI ESQ

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

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