Note: This article was first published in the 2010 Report of the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding in Monrovia: “Strengthening Freedom to Further Democracy in Liberia: Attacks on Freedom of Expression 2010”.
Freedom of information is today a social and political necessity needed to advance human liberty and security in the contemporary world of globalization and increasing democratization. Today, with the advancement of technology, it seems no one has control over information dissemination, and no one is capable enough to deny the people of their rights to know. The internet has broken the barriers, and authoritarian regimes no longer have control over the media and the civil society in advancing free speech and access to information.
The impact of globalization is also playing a key role in opening human societies and making information to cross borders without delays. What is now gaining steam, is that after years of ebullient advocacy in Africa for free speech and rights of the people to know, African governments are yielding demands of their people in allowing freedom of information and freedom of speech - essential pillars of democracy - to flourish, not necessarily by the discretion of a sitting regime, but as a statutory law.
Freedom of Information is a fundamental right and a critical element of all freedoms desired by humanity. This right fully supports the much talked about freedom of expression, which is impossible without a ‘right to know’ and a ‘right to access public information’. The importance of the right to information have been recognized by numerous international legal instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. All of the above instruments are clear on the right of the people to access public information, and obligations of states to make information available to the people. It is explicitly stated in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa that “Public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information, subject only to clearly defined rules established by law.”
With demand from civil society and human rights activists and the media, states are passing legislations aimed at improving access to information and promoting free speech. These legislations are declaring public information as properties of the people, and that they have the right to access them at any time of their convenience without any thorough process of scrutiny. These laws are commonly called Freedom of Information Law (FOI Law). Many countries in Africa have drafted FOI bills. By the end of 2010 very few countries in sub-Sahara Africa including Liberia, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Angola had FOI Laws.
In April 2008 Liberian civil society groups led by the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP) and the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) petitioned the Legislature with three draft media and free-speech related legislations including the FOI Law. CEMESP continuously engaged the process by regularly issuing policy briefs, advocating for the passage of the FOI Law, and creating public awareness on the draft laws. The efforts of CEMESP, the PUL and other civil society groups that participated in this campaign proved very successful with the passage of the FOI Law in September 2010. With this development at hand Liberia has been counted among nations that now have FOI Law and by extension a country that respects the people’s right to know, free speech and free expression. What then does Liberia intend to benefit from the passage of an FOI Law, and how important is this law to the country and its people?
There are numerous benefits a country can reap from an FOI Law, particularly when enforced. Some countries with FOI Law still have challenges in implementing them, and some hide under the guise of confidentiality and privacy laws to deny people access to relevant information. However, a country with a law and culture of making public information ‘public’, and easily accessible stands to grow faster in promoting democratic governance, improving security, promoting integrity in transactions, and promoting human rights and free speech.
The general objective of Liberia’s FOI Law is 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 information. This law mandates all public entities to establish publication schemes that will regularly provide detailed information regarding their core functions, nature of activities and operations and information they possess.
Freedom of Information promotes democratic governance. A fundamental objective of democracy is to promote civil liberty. A critical element of civil liberty itself is free speech, and free speech is only enhanced with unfettered access to information. With an FOI Law in place, Liberians can without restrain, access any information needed to demand accountability from their government. An environment in which citizens and government regularly interact in open space as a result of available information and education promotes accountability, and a system in which government operations are open for public scrutiny builds platforms for democratic governance, enhance accountability and deters acts of corruption.
Many local and international researchers including students have always expressed as challenges the reluctance and refusals of Liberian bureaucrats to make information available to them when doing assessment of government or conducting studies relative to the country’s development. This is actually a culture of secrecy inherent in Liberia’s public servants, and it is nourished by motives of corruption. But with the passage of the FOI Law, there are prospects that Liberia’s hidden information – good or bad – are bound to be published. Chapter 3, Section 3.1 of Liberia’s FOI Law states that all information held by public bodies or institutions receiving public funding shall be made accessible, and may be inspected, and open for reproduction. The Act further stated in Section 3.2 that every person irrespective of their nationality may request, receive and reproduce information held by public bodies as well as private bodies that are supported by public funds.
To enhance this process of implementing the FOI Law in Liberia, mainly in making public information accessible, the civil society must redefine the advocacy in promoting freedom of information in Liberia. The passage of the Law must be seen as the legitimate beginning of a process, but not an end. The civil society and media organizations particularly free speech campaign groups like CEMESP must launch intensive civic awareness campaigns on the FOI Law in Liberia and how it can be utilized by the citizens. The new campaign for freedom of information in Liberia must begin with an advocacy for the implementation of Chapter 2 of the Law which is focused on the regular publication of information by public institutions. Demanding the establishment of resource centers or public libraries that will be reference points for public information in Liberia will go a long way in promoting FOI.
In conclusion, the Freedom of Information law is particularly important to Liberia as a postwar nation, where acts of corruption, suppression of free speech and bad governance contributed to civil uprisings and violent civil conflicts. A well articulated and implemented FOI Law stands to carry Liberia forward in promoting public accountability and equal treatment of all of its people under the rule of law. The FOI Law is important in the fight against corruption and mismanagement. Freedom of information in Liberia will contribute to the education of the people by enforcing the rights of the people to know. Above all freedom of information provides appropriate platforms for citizens and their leaders to know about each other and in this interaction give grassroots legitimacy to the government. FOI is not only a responsibility of the government; its enforcement also requires responsible citizenship and compliance from everyone. Therefore, civic awareness campaigns must not only be limited to sensitizing the people about their rights under the law, emphasis must also be laid on their duties and obligations under the law.