Re: Akume’s riot act on official secrets – A Rebuttal by Media Rights Agenda

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    By Obioma Okonkwo

    Ms Obioma Okonkwo, MRA’s, Legal Head

    On Monday, July 8, 2024, Blueprint newspaper published an editorial titled “Akume’s riot act on official secrets”, in which it sought to justify the threat by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. George Akume, that government officials who disclose information without authorization would be jailed and railed against the criticism of that threat by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) as “misleading and mischievous”.

    As a newspaper established and owned by the current Minister of Information and National Orientation, Alhaji Mohammed Idris, some would say it is inevitable and, perhaps, understandable that Blueprint newspaper would allow itself to be co-opted as part of the already substantial arsenal of Government’s propaganda machinery. 

    But some sticklers for media professionalism and ethical rules that guide the profession of journalism would argue that such co-optation, whether voluntary or coerced, violates ethical principles and standards in the media sector and is unjustifiable.

    Whatever position one takes, we believe that a point of convergence among various schools of thought on this issue would be, as journalists are wont to say, that facts are sacred and that the pursuit of truth is a core foundation upon which any journalistic enterprise should be built. 

    It is for this reason we find the Blueprint’s editorial, riddled with outright falsehoods, inaccuracies and sheer ignorance, disturbing and deserving of a rebuttal from us. A news outlet, whose core business is to inform and educate the public, for which facts are sacred and whose function is guided by truth and objectivity, should not deliberately misinform its readers and lie to them in order to advance a political agenda that is, at best, illegitimate.

    Blueprint stated in its editorial that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is neither inconsistent nor incongruous with the Official Secrets Act and does not invalidate, vitiate, void or repeal the Official Secrets Act. 

    We agree that the FOI Act does not repeal the Official Secret Act and we never claimed or implied otherwise in our statement citing Section 27(2) of the Act, which states that “Nothing contained in the Criminal Code or Official Secrets Act shall prejudicially affect any public officer who, without authorization, discloses to any person, an information which he reasonably believes to show mismanagement, gross waste of funds, fraud, and abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety notwithstanding that such information was not disclosed pursuant to the provision of this Act”.

    But Blueprint was hopelessly wrong when it claimed that “It is trite to state that the FOI Act is neither inconsistent nor incongruous to the Official Secrets Act”, perhaps deliberately so, to enable it advance a false narrative.

    What is clear from Section 27(2) of the FOI Act is that there is a clear conflict between the Official Secrets Act of 1962, which seeks to criminalize and punish public officials who disclose information without authorization, and the FOI Act of 2011, which represents a change in public policy in accordance with current international norms and standards, and protects public officials who disclose without authorization information in the public interest.

    Therein lies the incongruity and inconsistency between the two laws.

    But Blueprint newspaper goes further to falsely claim that the Official Secrets Act and the FOI Act “are, in fact, complementary and analogous as they are geared towards the overall objective of ensuring the nation’s security and accelerating its socio-economic and political development.”

    Regardless of who wrote the editorial, it is mind-boggling that the newspaper would allow this obvious falsehood to be published in its name.  The Official Secrets Act, of colonial origins, is about hiding official information from the public while the FOI Act is, as stated in its preamble, about making public records and information more freely available, giving the public access to public records and information, protecting public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest, and protecting “serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization”.

    The two laws are not complementary, they are not analogous and there is absolutely no meeting point between them. The difference between the two pieces of legislation is as stark as the difference between night and day.  Besides, there is nothing contained in the Official Secrets Act that can be interpreted to be aimed at enhancing transparency or accelerating the socio-economic and political development of Nigeria.

    Despite the reality of the stark difference between the two laws, the supremacy of the FOI Act over the Official Secrets Act is not in dispute. As stated by the Attorney-General of the Federation in the “Guidelines on the Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011”, a subsidiary instrument issued pursuant to the powers conferred on the Attorney-General by the Act, the provisions of the FOI Act “supersedes any provision in existing legislation including the Official Secrets Act, Section 97 of the Criminal Code and other laws which is inconsistent with the FOIA. (Sections 1(1), 27 and 28).”

    Clearly, the Attorney-General also recognized the inconsistencies and incongruity between the FOI Act and the Official Secrets Act along with the provisions of other existing laws which promote secrecy in government, contrary to Blueprint newspaper’s misrepresentation of the facts.

    In re-stating the SGF claim that disclosure of official information is a felony and that there is no defence for the offence either in the Constitution or the FOI Act, Blueprint newspaper deliberately ignored the unambiguous provision of Section 27(2) of the FOI Act, already cited by MRA in our July 4, 2024 statement, which provides a complete defence to any public official who discloses without authorization any information that the official reasonably believes to be in the public interest.

    Blueprint accused MRA of being “unperturbed by the menace of bandits, kidnappers, insurgents, secessionists, militants, oil thieves and the myriads of insecurity ravaging the country and frustrating its developmental efforts” and claims that “Evidence abounds that the deadly and dastardly activities of these criminal elements are aided and abetted by corrupt and unscrupulous public officers who leak official secrets to them.”

    Besides the fact that Blueprint completely neglected to refer to any of the evidence it says abounds and did not cite a single instance to substantiate this claim, it conveniently ignored the fact that if there is indeed any evidence that corrupt public officers are in cahoots with such criminal elements, unauthorized disclosure of official information is insignificant in the context of the very serious offences that they can be accused of and charged with.

    It was unable to refer to any instance where civil servants or other serving public officials have been arrested for or charged with conspiring or being in collusion with bandits, kidnappers, insurgents, secessionists, militants, and other such criminal elements to commit the crimes ravaging the country but decides to pretend that prosecuting whistleblowers is the solution to the problem.  It also conveniently neglects to address the obvious incompetence of the government in tackling the long list of security challenges.

    Blueprint newspaper asserted that “Besides the danger to public health or safety, leaking classified or secret documents puts a strain on government, which has to dissipate humongous amount of energy, time and financial resources it would otherwise have deployed to other critical sectors of the economy, to refute the lies thereof.”

    The newspaper conflates unauthorized disclosure of official documents and information with spreading false news or information, a clear indication that the writer of the editorial has no understanding of the issues.

    Besides, the claim overlooks the benefits of transparency and accountability in governance and ignores the enormous damage that corruption, fraud and other wrongdoing, fueled by secrecy in government, has done to the country and its citizens. Unauthorized disclosure of information play a significant role in exposing corruption, fraud, mismanagement, diversion of public resources, incompetence, among many other ills in government and can ultimately save resources when these are exposed and addressed, thereby improving government efficiency and performance.

    In addition, the FOI Act, which the Secretary to the Government of the Federation now seeks to undermine by discrediting it, is an instrument designed to enhance transparency and accountability, responsive governance and citizen participation in government, all of which can contribute to better governance and more efficient and effective use of resources.

    For the avoidance of doubt, it is our view that the Government’s untenable efforts to clampdown on whistleblowers, which is being so vigorously championed by Blueprint newspaper, is a subterfuge designed only to stem the constant revelations coming into the public domain about corrupt practices, abuse of power and other wrongdoing among government officials. We are compelled to observe that the frequency of occurrence of such wrongdoing has now reached epidemic proportions.

    As we stated in our earlier statement, which Blueprint newspaper was roused to respond to, if the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and other officials concentrate more on ensuring that the Government does the right thing instead of constantly taking decisions and actions that will be potentially embarrassing for the Government, officials would not need to be so afraid of their decisions and actions becoming public knowledge.

    It is, however, unfortunate, that as a media organization which relies entirely on sources of information, whether anonymous or “on the record” sources, for its reporting in furtherance of the duty imposed on it by Section 22 of the Constitution to “uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”, and whose reporters and editors are bound by a code of ethics that requires them to protect confidential sources of information, Blueprint has chosen to be on the wrong side in this issue for reasons of a fleeting political gain. It is a classic example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

    • Obioma Okonkwo (Ms) is Head of the Legal Department at Media Rights Agenda.  She can be reached at:  obioma@mediarightsagenda.org