By Samuka V Konneh
Key government and civil society actors have acknowledged that transparent and accountable governance is being profoundly undermined in Liberia because of challenges in accessing pertinent public information, coupled with the inadequate implementation of the freedom of information law.
At a one day public information roundtable in Monrovia, the government and civil society representatives identified a variety of constraints that serve to impede the promotion and development of a culture of robust freedom of information regime for good governance in Liberia.
The identified interrelated impediments include among others the current internal review mechanisms embedded within the FOI law, the lack of political will by central government actors, limited public outreach and awareness on the FOI law, the culture of secrecy, and the low use of the FOI law to access public information by the public, inclusive of journalists and media organizations.
In his speech on the topic, “The Increasing Need for Cooperation and Partnership in our Quest for Unhindered Access to Information in Liberia,” Cllr. Mark Bedor Wla-Freeman, the Commissioner of the government statutory institution with oversight mandate to implement the FOI Act – the Independent Information Commission (IIC) – emphasized that it was crucial to recognize that, “access to information is an anti-corruption as well as a tool for accountability and transparency.”
He called for open minds in the fight against corruption in Liberia. “We should realize that in order to succeed, we need to demand accountability and transparency not only from the government but also from NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and donors that have also held vast resources on behalf the country,” adds Cllr. Wla-Freeman.
Peter Quaqua, President of the West Africa Journalists Association (WAJA), while recognizing the milestone in the enactment and ongoing patchy efforts toward implementing the FOI law, observed that there was a need to review the law with a view to amending some problematic aspects, specifically, Chapter Three, Section 3.9 and Chapter Six, Section 6.2.
Both sections of the law, according to Mr. Quaqua, create unnecessary delays in terms of journalists being “pushed around” for between 30 and 90 calendar days as regard the response period for request made for access to public information and the internal review period for hearing negative responses toward requests made for access to public information.
“The law as it is written can be used by people who are mischievous – people who got something to hide; people who don’t favour the information being released,” says Quaqua, who adds that, ‘those aspects of the FOI law are not friendly for media work … because no journalist wants to wait for 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days – to get an information released to the public that is waiting, waiting, and waiting.’
Internews’ Project Director, Samuka V. Konneh, revealed that out of over a hundred FOI requests filed by journalists in a previous project – the Liberia Media Development program – only 12 got responded to, which he blamed on ‘the poor level of relationships between journalists and public information officers or county information officers’ as well as ‘difficulties expressed in the FOI law in terms of the right of appeal and internal review’ for the little success, so far, in the full utilization of the FOI law.
Mr. Konneh added: “Access to information isn’t only a matter of upholding the constitution and international protocols, it’s even more a matter of good governance, participatory and sustainable democracy – and a matter of national security. Access to information is an important factor in combating what has become known as a ‘culture of secrecy’ in a democracy; and Liberia is no exception.”
Held under the theme, “Building Networks to Increase Demand for FOI Use” in Liberia, the public information roundtable was geared toward bridging relationships and providing a network of opportunities among Public Information Officers (PIOs), County Information Officers (CIOs), and a diverse group of twenty-five freedom of information journalism fellows, who were vetted and recruited for the 10-month fellowship.
The roundtable was the first of three to be held under the Liberia Media Initiative (LMI) being implemented by Internews in collaboration with the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding and Local Voices Liberia Media Network. It is co-financed by the European Union, whose Head of Delegation to Liberia, Ambassador Laurant Delahousse, urged journalists, including the freedom of information journalism fellows to always report with the facts, despite journalism being one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
“I see the personal attacks against my good friend, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in your country, for instance. I see articles in the media that are obviously being bought – pay money to publish. They don’t represent a form of truth. You [FOI journalism fellows] are here to access the information, share the information, and make it very clear in what you write – what is a fact, without a fact, and what is a comment on the fact. That is absolutely necessary.”
Other representatives of civil society organizations including the Vice President of the Press Union of Liberia, Daniel Nyakonah, also stressed the need for journalists to base their stories on factual information, reminding the FOI journalism fellows, “We are here to prepare ourselves to dig out the right information that will form part of the sources that will make a better story … to serve public good.”
In other remarks and presentations, the Executive Director of the Independent Information Commission (IIC), Emmanuel D. Howe, and the Sensitization and Outreach Director of the IIC, Facia B. Harris spoke of severe constraints being faced by the IIC in undertaking its mandate because of insufficient support to the Commission by the central government and other actors in position of public authority.
Aside from the FOI journalism fellows, the public information round table, held on 31 May 20201, was attended by over fifteen public information officers and county information officers who work in different government entities and county structures across Liberia.