Media Rights Agenda Convenes Africa Regional Conference on FOI Implementation in Abuja

Regional Conference participants

Group photograph of participants at the Regional Conference on the Implementation of FOI in Africa

Freedom of Information stakeholders from across Africa rose from a two-day Regional Conference on Freedom of Information Implementation last month in Abuja outlining a set of “strategies as necessary minimums for effective implementation of access to information laws.”

The Conference, held at the Reiz Continental Hotel in Abuja, was convened by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and brought together 111 state and non-state actors from Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The conference had participants representing Freedom of Information oversight bodies, public institutions, the military, anti-corruption agencies, civil society organizations, professional bodies, academic institutions, the media and other interest groups.

Nigeria’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), declared the conference open while the keynote address was delivered by Major-General Chris Olukolade, Nigeria’s Director of Defence Information.

General Olukolade spoke on “Protecting Sensitive National Security Information in the Age of Freedom of Information”, in which he explored a wide range of issues relating, among others, to the statutory and institutional framework that protects classified information; the right of citizens to access government information and maintain public oversight; the enormous challenges confronting the security sector in trying to protect defence information in the context of a Freedom of Information regime; and the task of  “managing the main stream media, the online media and the social media whose main business is disclosure.”

Represented by his Special Assistant, Professor Deji Adekunle, Nigeria’s Attorney-General in declaring the conference open, noted that “Freedom of Information laws empower discourse and the participation of citizens in government,” adding that “such laws therefore deepen democratic systems by promoting transparency and accountability; checking arbitrariness; and educating people about official policies that affect them.”

He urged the conference to propose recommendations and measures that can ensure the realization of the objectives of Freedom of Information laws and of deepening democratic systems in Africa.

Other participants at the conference included Mr. Wale Fapohunda, the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice for Ekiti State in Nigeria, who chaired the opening ceremony; Mr. Bolaji Adebiyi, the Special Assistant on Media to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan; Mr. Theo Nicols, the Deputy Minister for Information and Communications of Sierra Leone; and Dr. Mourtada Deme, Project Director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) II Project, sponsors of the Conference.

Others included Cllr. Mark Bedo-Wla Freeman, the Independent Information Commissioner of Liberia;  Mrs. Marie-Paule Yace, the Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Communication of Cote d’Ivoire;  Ms Sylvia Nakabugu Biraahwa, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Information and Access to Information Focal Point at the Ministry of Information and National Guidance in the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda; and Mr. Sourghia Soumana Boureima, Technical Adviser in the Office of the President of Niger Republic.

Participants shared experiences on the status of implementation of national access to information laws in Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The Conference also had a panel discussion on the sectoral application of Freedom of Information Laws, focusing in particular on “Ensuring Transparency in Electoral Processes: The Role of Freedom of Information Laws”;  “Guaranteeing Access to Information for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons”, and “The Role of Freedom of Information Laws in the Fight Against Corruption”.

The conference also heard a presentation on “Ensuring Effective Oversight Mechanisms and Processes in Freedom of Information Laws – A Comparative Analysis of National Laws in Africa” and a case study on “Promoting Public Awareness of FOI Laws – The Experience of Nigeria’s National Orientation Agency”.

Presentations were made on “The Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Implementation of Freedom of Information Laws” with experiences from South Africa and Nigeria, as well as the “Policy and Institutional Reforms Required in Public Institutions for the Effective Implementation of Freedom of Information Laws”.

Nigerian civil society organizations from different parts of the country shared their experiences of “Mentoring as a Strategy for Mainstreaming Freedom of Information Laws” in a panel discussion, while oversight bodies from Liberia and Nigeria also spoke on “Implementation Challenges Confronting Freedom of Information Laws Africa” with case studies from the two countries.

The conference identified some emerging positive trends on the continent as well as clear challenges impeding the effective implementation of freedom of information laws in different African countries.

Some of the positive trends identified include a growing recognition on the continent that citizens have a right of access to information; the adoption of a Model Access to Information Law by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights; a burgeoning access to information community of practice that is willing to offer assistance both in-country and across the region; and an encouraging speed in passage of progressive access to information laws, among others.

But the conference also noted and agreed that a range of challenges continued to inhibit the full realization of the objectives and potentials of Freedom of Information laws, including:

  •  The lack of critical understanding of access to information laws by public officials and citizens in many countries;
  • Poor documentation, record-keeping and archival processes in public institutions in virtually all countries;
  • The inadequate funding of oversight mechanisms and freedom of information units in public institutions;
  • The problem of non-compliance by most public institutions with access to information law obligations, particularly on the issue of proactive disclosure and timely reporting on the extent to which they have implemented the laws; and
  • The absence in most of the countries of dedicated oversight mechanisms and where such mechanisms exist, vague or ineffective procedures for appeal and enforcement.
  • The conference reiterated the need for countries which do not have comprehensive access to information laws to speedily pass such laws, pointing out the need to amend or repeal laws and policies that continue to hamper access to information regimes.

The conference ended with a discussion and adoption of a Final Statement which outlined strategies for ensuring the effective implementation of freedom of information laws in Africa.

The strategies proposed for ensuring the effective implementation of access to information laws on the continent covered issues such as public enlightenment and awareness; sensitization and training of public institutions and officials; record keeping and information management; funding; proactive disclosure; as well as monitoring, enforcement and oversight mechanisms.

The conference was sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) II project, a joint project funded with contributions from the European Union, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Korea International Cooperation Agency and the UNDP.

Download the Final Statement on Ensuring the Effective Implementation of Freedom of Information laws in Africa  from the conference.

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