The Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP) says Liberians cannot afford to have the Freedom of Information Law as “a paper tiger”, pointing out that there are too many “gray areas and shortfalls” in the demand and supply trend of information requested by the public.
In a statement delivered by CEMESP’s Executive Director Malcolm W. Joseph, the institution said as part of the USAID INTERNEWS Project to create the opportunity for stakeholders in the FOI infrastructure including media, Public Information Officers and the Independent Information Commission (IIC) to rise to the occasion where accountability and transparency matters most of peace and democratic consolidation, media institutions are here to reinvigorate in spirit and commitment to reaffirm our trust in the FOI Law.
“We have continued to observe a very low trend in submission of requests by the public as well as the response mechanism from public information holders,” Mr. Joseph said, pointing out that it could be assumed that many people are not making use of the complaint mechanism of the IIC.
Notably, journalists and media entities have exceeded all other sectors in seeking redress. According to the Independent Information Commission, about 30 percent of requests or complaints it has received and processed emanated from journalists or the media which revolved around accountability issues.
Women NGO secretariat is second in ranking to media in complaint filing and no hearing could be convened even as the requested issues were validated by the Independent Information Commission (IIC). The Women NGO Secretariat, he narrated, reported twelve cases which represent 25 percent of all requests made, but noted however that none of the requests has been addressed.
Mr. Joseph quoted the IIC that the change in the leadership of the Women NGO warrants “rewriting their complaints”. “There is an indication that grassroot CSOs have been curious about how Ebola resources were utilized, and [therefore] filed FOI request for documents that could not be provided. The cases have not been handled because the respondents and complainants did not come for hearing,” the CEMESP executive director said.
The issue of cost implication in seeking FOI redress by county based residents, he asserted, has been another eye-opener to some of the wider application challenges of the law. “The IIC and partners have to learn from this resource limitation and certainly information sharing towards the decentralization of the application of the law,” Mr. Joseph said.
Also worth noting: The Liberia Media Development Program FOI Investigative Reporting Program of 2017 developed a tracker whereby journalists from across Liberia filed close to one hundred FOI requests on mostly accountability, policy and service delivery issues.
The CEMESP boss said the status of these request is still in want of actions-little or no disclosure, and added that only five of these requested pieces of information were acknowledged by the respective entities. “Regrettably, eighty percent of the requests were submitted but the receiving institutions have failed to acknowledge receipt,” he maintained.
“So we have come to show that there is a basis of measuring the dis-equilibrium between the demand and supply side of the law. The relationship between the public and duty bearers as custodians of information is not holding the FOI law in deserving respect,” he stressed.
This situation, Mr. Joseph accentuated, has grave implication for rule of law where gossips and opacity in fiscal matters and service provision trigger conflict to exacerbate poverty. “This is why we at the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP) have been engaging the Pubic Information Officers and Public Relations Officers,” he indicated.
According to him, the PIOs are supposed to be in various ministries, departments and agencies as first point of contact, when a member of the public files an FOI request to aid the disclosure process. “We are in touch with the PIOs to see how the One hundred plus requests that journalists filed are responded to”, he pointed out.
“Together we can remind all actors to come to speed in honoring FOI requests to promote disclosure rather than thrashing requests and discarding decisions of IIC, which is heightening the public cynicism that FOI Law is a lost course, the CEMESP said in statement titled: Reigniting Media Synergy to Rekindle the Application of the Liberian FOI Law delivered on June 8, 2019.
He said while we all recognize the role of the office of the Independent Information Commission, established with the passage of the FOI law to ensure that there is a body to facilitate the submission of information requests by the public and response mechanism by public institutions, this recognition seems not to be matched by our actions.