Is Government Serious For Access To Information?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

One of the success stories that this government and the people of Liberian can vaingloriously brag about is the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law, was approved September 16, 2010 and printed into handbill October 6, 2010. The Act came against the backdrop of mounting concerns about the inaccessibility of information that were needed by the public, including members of the media. It was perceived that such a law would play a major play in the fight against corruption and principally promote accountability and transparency.

Essentially, the law is intended to promote effective, equitable and inexpensive exercise of the right of access to information and to establish clear and concise procedures for requesting and providing of information held by (i) public bodies and (ii) private bodies receiving public benefits or performing public functions or providing public service.

Additionally, the law is also intended to establish and provide for the exercise of a right to appeal any decision denying a request for information or infringing on the right of access to information; and to provide appropriate penalties and other sanctions for wrongful failure to keep and or provide information.

The scope of the law says it shall apply to and cover: all public authorities and bodies at all branches and levels of the Government, including but not limited to ministries, bureau, departments, autonomous agencies, public corporations, commissions, committees, sub-committees, boards, military and paramilitary institutions, and any other related bodies supported in whole or in part by public resources.

To make the law more accessible to the people it bias required that information officers be appointed to these institutions that fall under the Act. Section 3.6 states, “Designation of at least one personnel staff: every public authority and private entity to which this Act applies shall appoint, maintain and duly support at least one designated personnel/staff whose overall responsibility shall be to receive requests for information held by the authority or entity and coordinate the response(s) of the authority or entity to all such requests. The designated personnel/staff shall serve as the primary contact of the authority or agency with the public relative to request for and provision of information and his responsibilities shall include promoting best practices in record maintenance, storage and management, and assisting members of the public, especially illiterate and other physically challenged persons, to file requests for information.

Disappointingly, it is sad to note that since the enactment of the law, these institutions have flouted the law as the failed to “appoint, maintain and duly support at least one designated personnel/staff whose overall responsibility shall be to receive requests for information held by the authority or entity and coordinate the response(s) of the authority or entity to all such requests.”

Unsurprisingly, it now seems that the patience of the Commission is running out, thereby necessitating it to issue an Administrative Circular, in which it expressed concern about this violation. According, it has of October 1, given these institutions 30-day ultimatum to act according or the law will take its course.

In its circular, the Independent Information Commission (IIC) gave a 30- day ultimatum to all public bodies and private entities covered under the Freedom of Information Act to appoint and duly support at least one information officer.

The Commission, in the circular signed by Cllr. Mark Bedor-Wla Freeman, Chairman stated that every public and private entities covered by the Act should appoint at least one information person who will be the overall responsible to receive requests for information held by the authority or entity and coordinate the response (s) of the authority or entity to all such requests which is in accordance with Section 3.6 of the Freedom of Information Act.

According to the Commission, the timely and scrupulous appointment of the information officers as well as the establishment of internal review bodies is cardinal to the implementation of the Act and the mandates of the Commission.

It pointed out that in keeping with the Act every public authority shall regularly update a widely accessible and user-friendly publication scheme whereby the public authority or public body automatically provides detailed information regarding its core functions, nature of its activities and operations, and the information it possesses.”

The Commission further stated that requests have been repeatedly made to all public bodies and private entities concerned to comply with the statutory provisions but most entities have not complied adding that failure to comply with what it termed as “Administrative Circular” in the 30 days period, will lead the Independent Information Commission to take the appropriate administrative and judicial action as contained in the Act.

As I said earlier, this Freedom of Information law is one of those things that this country can boost of. And so to hear about people who are charged with certain responsibility for its enforcement, reneging on acting in accordance with provisions of the act, then, it is a matter of concern. We cannot be talking about being a country if law and at the same time not respecting the very laws we made.

It is sadden to note that many times the commission would be speaking on such matter and also support to bit to be able to effectively and efficiently carry out its statutory mandate. Let the government take note of the need for additionally support to the commission.

While urging the government to consider international organizations like the World Bank, the African Development Bank, UNDP, UNESCO and others to be alternative sources for funding, being fully aware that “access to information” is a human rights issue.

Once more, those responsible to appoint information officers to receive request from the public for information, should do so, and that these international organizations should consider support to the commission to make it ‘more independent.” I REST MY CASE.