Media Rights Agenda’s (MRA) Programme Director, Mr. Ayode Longe, has called on journalists to make optimum use of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to to deepen their reporting
Delivering a paper titled “Freedom of Information (FOI) Act as a Potent Tool for Journalism Practice” on November 26, 2019, at the Press Week of the Nigerian Union of Journalists/Radio Nigeria, Lagos Chapel, Mr. Longe noted that the FOI Act absolutely exempts journalists’ confidential sources from the regime of records and information that members of the public can request for.
In his opening remarks, the Director, Lagos Operations of the FRCN, Prince Adeyinka Amosu commended the NUJ/FRCN Chapel for the choice of the lecture theme and urged participants to listen attentively as they will benefit immensely from it.
The Chairman of the NUJ/FRCN Chapel, Mr. Fabian Anawo, in a welcome address, said that the choice of the topic was to educate members on how they can make use of the Act.
He said that the leadership of the chapel was committed to ensuring that the rights of members would at all times be protected and urged members to be dedicated to their duty.
Mr. Longe, who was guest speaker at the occasion, gave a broad overview of the history of FOI Act, what it is, why it is important and key features of the Act.
He elaborated on why Journalists needed the FOI Act, saying journalists being purveyors of news need accurate records and information that would give credence to their reportage. He said further that the FOI Act gives journalists a legal right and is a tool to make requests for government-held information and records for which they can go to court if denied access to such information.
He pointed out that Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution places a duty on the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media to hold government accountable to the citizenry pointing out that the Section is not justiciable but that the FOI Act is a complementary and empowering tool to that Section of the Constitution.
The MRA Director added that the FOI Act can be used to break news when used diligently, consistently and conscientiously by a reporter, either working alone or in cohort with others saying that a number of journalists who have broken vital news had become popular and won awards using the FOI Act.
Mr. Longe said the FOI Act supersedes the provisions of all other Acts, Laws or Regulations, except the Constitution and Laws with constitutional flavour. He said it supersedes the Official Secrets Act, the Evidence Act, the Criminal Code, the Penal Code, the Federal Public Service Rules, explaining that these instruments cannot be used to limit the scope or application of the FOI Act.
Mr. Longe carried out an on-the-spot survey to determine how media professionals interface with the Act. He asked participants how many of them have a copy of the FOI Act; how many had read it? Surprisingly, of the about forty participants less than five persons have a copy of the FOI Act or have read it or have used the Act.
Speaking further, he disclosed that in the course of writing his presentation, he stumbled on a 2014 Research Paper titled The Nigerian journalists’ knowledge, perception, and use of the Freedom of Information (FOI) law in journalism practices written by Ifeoma Dunu and Gregory Obinna Ugbo, saying findings by the research were not encouraging.
Among others, he said, the researchers administered questionnaires to select members of the NUJ in four South-eastern states of Nigeria: Enugu, Anambra, Imo and Ebonyi States. He said a review of some of the questions and the final outcomes show a low level of understanding and use of the FOI Act by journalists.
On their awareness and knowledge of the FOI Act, 78% of the respondents said they were aware to a large extent while the remaining 22% were aware to a low extent. 15% of the respondents said that they use the FOI Act while a whopping 85% said they don’t.
Mr. Longe said that the result of the on the spot survey and other findings showed that journalists are not taking advantage of the Act to discharge their duties.
To address the challenge, he recommended that the NUJ, the National Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ), and the Guild of Editors (NGE) should join hands with press freedom groups like Media Rights Agenda (MRA), International Press Centre (IPC), among others to empower reporters to understand and make adequate use the FOI Act.
Discussants of the lecture, Mr. Olise Egbunike, Chris Okechukwu Nderibe, and Abdulwarees Solanke all said that the distress in the media industry was making it difficult for journalists to embark on investigative reportage. They said that a situation where employers do not pay salaries for up to one year and above, the reporter cannot do much.
They also observed that media owners’ interest also affects the much that a reporter could do as a journalist who has done a beautiful investigative report may not have it published because of the proprietor’s political, economic or other interest.
Mr. Longe presented 50 copies of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 to the Chapel.