President signs historic FOI bill into law

THE PUNCH Newspaper

President Goodluck Jonathan has signed the Freedom of Information Bill 2011 into law.

The bill, which was passed last month by the National Assembly, was sent to the Presidency last Friday.

A statement from the Deputy Director, Information in the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. O. J. Abuah, said Jonathan assented to the bill on Saturday, less than 24 hours to his inauguration as the fourth elected civilian president.

The statement also summarised the purpose behind the new law, saying, “The objective of the Act is to make public records and information more freely available, and to also protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy.”

It added that the “Act also seeks to protect serving public officers from any adverse consequences of disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorisation, and to establish procedures for the achievement of these purposes.”

The signing of the bill attracted reactions from stakeholders who described it as laudable.

Under the new legislation, all public institutions will have to be open about their operations and expenditure while citizens will have the right to access information about their activities.

Whistleblowers who report malfeasance by their employers or organisations will be protected from reprisals.

The FoI bill was first submitted to the 4th National Assembly in 1999 but it did not make much progress. It returned to the legislative chambers in the 5th National Assembly in 2003 and was passed by both chambers in the first quarter of 2007. However, it was vetoed by President Olusegun Obasanjo, who cited “national security” as reason.

The bill returned to both chambers of the 6th National Assembly in 2007 and was finally passed on May 24, 2011.

Early in March, the immediate President of NPAN, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, led a team of media moguls to visit the Senate President, Senator David Mark, to press for the passage of the bill, which the media owners stressed held the key to transparency and accountability in governance.

NPAN’s intervention followed adversarial comments against the bill by the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Dr. Abba Aji, who vowed to advise him not to assent to it.

Swiftly, the Presidency disowned Aji’s comment and expressed its desire to sign the bill when passed by the legislature.

Ogunshola at the meeting with Mark had said, “Perhaps you have the historic opportunity to be the one to preside over the Senate that will pass the bill and then also allow President Jonathan to also use the historic opportunity to sign the bill into law.”

The NPAN and the Nigerian Guild of Editors described the presidential assent to the bill as a welcome development.

NPAN, in a statement by its Executive Secretary,Mr. Feyi Smith, hailed Jonathan for the timely signing of the bill.

The statement quoted the association’s president, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena as also commending “the leadership of the outgoing National Assembly, civil society groups, media, labour, other groups under the canopy of the Freedom of Information Coalition, and the general public for their dedication to the cause of an informed citizenry, which is the bedrock of democratic practice.”

The NPAN urged Nigerians “to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the Freedom of Information Act, to enhance transparency and good governance and to work towards achieving a zero tolerance for corruption and impunity.

The NGE said its received the news with gratitude and praised the President for keeping his words.

It said in a statement by its president, Mr. Gbenga Adefaye, that signing the bill, the President had more than anyone else, empowered Nigerians to participate in the governance of their own affairs.

“The body added, “The people can now legitimately seek public information, corroborate their facts and make useful suggestions towards achieving greater good for the majority. With access to information, citizens can fight corruption and closet government and confront the few who misappropriate our resources to themselves alone.

“For the media, the signing of the FOI law has expanded the frontiers of press freedom for Africa’s most vibrant press. No more will it be permitted for the journalists to hurry to press with half-truths and misinformation when they can officially verify their facts.”

A coalition of Nigerian civil society groups had long worked and advocated the passage of the FoI Bill under the leadership of the Right to Know Initiative, Media Rights Agenda, Open Society Justice Initiative, and Open Society for Initiative for West Africa.

MRA, OSIWA, OSJI and RKI , three of the groups that praised the President on Tuesday for making the law a reality, said it signalled the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria.

They added that the law would aid anti-corruption, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public institutions, support justice and ensure more open society.

The groups praised the President and the National Assembly for making the law become a reality.

They also restated their commitment to collaborate with government agencies, the private sector and civil society to ensure democratic consolidation and urged all agencies of government and non-state actors to prepare for the effective implementation of the FoI law.

“The new law will profoundly change how government works in Nigeria. Now we can use the oxygen of information and knowledge to breathe life into governance. It will no longer be business as usual,” said the Associate Legal Officer of OSJI, Mr. Maxwell Kadiri.

Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, MRA said, “The signing of the FoI Bill into law is the clearest demonstration ever of the power of civil society working together to influence public policy and initiate reform. We are committed to continuing our concerted efforts to ensure that the new law achieves its ultimate objective of making government work for the people.”

OSIWA’s coordinator of Nigeria programmes, Mr. Dayo Olaide, said, “We congratulate the leadership and members of both chambers of the National Assembly, for their steadfastness and the speed with which the bill was finalised. Their support for the expeditious completion of the work of the joint conference committee of both chambers in the twilight of the current parliament, finally made this dream a reality.”

The new Act, among other things, provides for the following:

*guarantees the right of access to information held by public institutions, irrespective of the form in which it is kept and is applicable to private institutions where they utilize public funds, perform public functions or provide public services;

* that requires all institutions to proactively disclose basic information about their structure and processes and mandates them to build the capacity of their staff to effectively implement and comply with the provisions of the Act;

* a range of legitimate exemptions and limitations to the public’s right to know, but it makes these exemptions subject to a public interest test that, in deserving cases, may override such exemptions; and

* reporting obligations on compliance with the law for all institutions affected by it. These reports are to be provided annually to the Federal Attorney General’s office, which will in turn make them available to both the National Assembly and the public.


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