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Freedom of information and its discontents

The passage of the Freedom of Information Act in Sierra Leone will be one of the defining moments of this year. Promised in election campaigns, then buried in bureaucratic red tape, this one’s been waiting on the side lines for about six years now. That’s where it was the last time I wrote about one of its main champions, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai. The final bill is now ready; most of us in the media have browsed through it. It’s clear that the bill will pass, not because Parliament is passionate about transparency but because there is mounting pressure from international donors.

The big question is, how will this make a difference to people’s lives? Going by past experience, there is often a gap between passing legislation and enforcing the law. The most recent example is that of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation which by an act of Parliament transitioned from the state broadcaster to an independent public service broadcaster in late 2009. A pet project of the UN mission, this was supposed to end political interference in news broadcasting. In reality, however, few attempts have been made to weed out partisan staff or to keep politicians at bay. The news coverage Sierra Leoneans have access to now is no different from what they had a year ago.

There is no denying that the act will raise questions. Details of corrupt mining, energy and infrastructure deals could come to light, salaries of public officials could be made transparent and district level records could be open to scrutiny.

There seem to be some obvious loop holes, however. As it stands now the act allows citizens to demand information from government departments, provided the data does not threaten national security. However, it also says that the costs of accessing photocopies of these records have to be borne by the petitioner. This leaves a window open for corruption which is already a systemic problem.
Another roadblock will be the high rate of illiteracy in the country, as most official documents will be in English. The act does say that the information is to be made available in a language that the person requesting it understands. But I can’t see understaffed government offices readily providing this value added service.

Finally, the act rests on the assumption that information is available. Apart from a few key ministries, most documentation is poorly kept. It is highly likely that many requests will be met with the response that the records simply do not exist. Very often valuable records are kept with NGOs, research organizations and private companies not covered under this legislation.

The act will probably be used mostly by media institutions and larger civil society organizations. Will the information be revealed in the public interest or used for the publisher’s personal purposes? The media in Sierra Leone are openly partisan. Will the media and civil society present the information in a way that people can understand? This has been a problem in the past where press releases and reports have been reproduced in the media within no explanation or analysis.

There is great optimism around the passage of this bill, and it can establish Sierra Leone as an example of open society in West Africa. But there are a lot of challenges still to be overcome.