by Gerald C. Koinyeneh
Monrovia - In 2010, Liberia became the first West African country to enact a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The Act guarantees easy and inexpensive access to information for all members of the public who want to understand the activities and budgets of ministries, departments, public corporations, commissions, military and all bodies supported by public funds.
However, despite the wide-ranging scope of the Act, many citizens do not know what it is or how to use it and the responsiveness of institutions receiving FOI requests is poor.
The challenge is turning Freedom of Information from an idea enshrined in law into a normal, effective practice that enables ordinary people to hold their government to account.
It is against this background that, Internews, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has concluded a three-day training workshop for 23 Public Information Officers (PIOs).
“The workshop is intended to promote the FOI law. It was passed in 2010, but its implementation has been slowed.”
“Within three years, Liberia will be celebrating ten years of the FOI law. How will we be celebrating it, what kinds of FOI cases have we tried?
Is government responding?
Our approach to this project is from multiple sources, we are working with journalists to teach them how to promote evidenced based reporting, using FOI as a way to do that, to file more FOI request, and ensuring that the Ministries and Agencies respond to those requests,” explained Maureen Sieh, Journalist Advisor of Internews.
Speaking at the end of the training on Wednesday, July 19, April O’neil, the Deputy Director for Democracy, Rights, and Governance of USAID noted that openness and transparency is critical to effectively governing a country, while actions taken in secret can lead citizens to mistrust their governments.
Madam O'Neil noted that by passing the FOI, Liberia took a bold step in allowing the general public to access government data and information, but despite its passage, the law is not widely used as envisaged.
She, however, lauded some government institutions including the Liberia Revenue Authorities (LRA) and the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) for implementing the FOI; and disclosed that USAID, in partnership with Internews under the Liberia Media Development Project, is working with journalist to use the FOI to inform the public; stressing that not as a mean to uncover damaging evidence, but as a tool to gather accurate and balanced information.
“I have been impressed with Liberia’s Progressiveness in terms of passing the Freedom of Information Act and also how responsive some government entities have been responding to requests for information.
The Liberia Revenue Authority, the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission, and some County Project Management Committees are noteworthy for their efforts, while others are also striving to be more responsive,” she averred.
The closing ceremony was graced by senior government officials who noted that the government through its various agencies was implementing the FOI.
They blamed the constant negative reportage by some media practitioners and the failure of a large segment of the public to seek information as some challenges facing the implementation of the law.
The Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Sylvester Grigsby, pointed out that the Executive Mansion’s website is active and contains a wealth of information that is very useful for the public; and encouraged all government agencies to be available to the public.
The Commissioner of the PPCC, Dorbor Jallah, also speaking noted that his entity has an effective communication dissemination system, but some media practitioners often obscure the fact and engage in negative reporting.
For his part, the Spokesperson of Liberia National Police blamed the heads of some government agencies to give out information to the media as a factor causing the slow implementation of the law.
“The problem is not the media; it is the authority’s failure to give out information to the media.'
"Some PROs and PIOs do not have a flexible working relationship with their bosses, thereby causing them not to have adequate information to disseminate to the public,” he intoned.
Mr. Collins, who boasted of having a cordial working relationship with his bosses asserted that offices of PIOs and PROs at several ministries and agencies are dejected and less equipped; and called for more support to be given the to the PIOs.
Also speaking, the PIOs called for more support from the government and stressed a distinction between a Public Information Officer, who is responsible to disseminate information requested by the public as regards the FOI law; and that of a Public Relation Officer who serves as the chief mouthpiece and promoter of an entity.
Webster Cassell, PIO of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection called on the Independent Information Commission (IIC) to play a robust monitoring role on all PIOs across the country to ensure that they exercise their function effectively.