By: Ishmael Salieu Koroma*
Recommendation 226 in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Freedom of Information) observed that ‘’Access to information is an important tool for public oversight. If citizens are able to scrutinize government information, they can discipline public officials at the ballot box. They can also use the use the information for legal challenges and the lobbying of decision makers.’’
To demonstrate its commitment to the democratization agenda, Sierra Leone passed the Right to Access Information (RAI) Act in 2013. The Act guarantees access to government information and also imposes a penalty on failure to make information available.
Sierra Leone was engulfed in a destructive civil war between 1991 and 2002. The civil war was partly caused by the non-accountability of the government, endemic corruption, misrule and the mismanagement of the country’s resources. Efforts have been made by the country, with the help of the international community, to embrace a democratic dispensation. To demonstrate its commitment to the democratization agenda, Sierra Leone passed the Right to Access Information (RAI) Act in 2013. The Act guarantees access to government information and also imposes a penalty on failure to make information available. However, Sierra Leone’s state institutions are still weak due to mismanagement and lack of transparency and accountability.
Freedom of expression and access to information are cornerstones of modern democracies. Public information/records are a means of power that governments and other political institutions use to exercise control over citizens, but are also a means of citizens’ empowerment. Through access to government information/records, media can play their watchdog role and people can assess the performance of governments and hold them accountable. The purpose of the paper is to demonstrate the fact that it is not enough to enact freedom of information laws (FOIs) if there is no political will to make government information accessible, an information management infrastructure to facilitate the creation, capture, management, dissemination, preservation and re-use of government information and investments in civil education to promote an information culture that appreciates information as a resource that underpins accountability and transparency.
The Government of Sierra Leone understands that freedom of information is an indispensable part of democratic societies. With the passing of this law, access to information and open data offers its citizenry the opportunity to critically evaluate authorities appointed and elected to account for their stewardship.
The establishment of the Right to Access Information Commission (RAIC) in 2014 generated a lot of interest from the demand side of the process, namely, citizens (disabled, women, and youth, as well as civil society organizations) and development partners who remain concerned about getting access to vital information as a way to effectively manage corruption and promote service delivery.
Chairman of the Right to Access Information Commission (RAIC), Dr. Ibrahim Seaga Shaw disclosed that the RAIC Act came into existence in 2013, being an Act to provide for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons providing services for them and to provide for other related matters. He added that the Commission has a clear mandate to make information available to the masses by increasing the supply of open data to a possible extent.
The Chairman furthered that in a similar manner RAIC is poised to improve on data accessibility by the masses and to make them aware of what rights they have in gaining such access to information stating that it is against such a backdrop that they decided to organize such a workshop for journalists as they are very key in terms of proactive disclosure of information by public authorities.
Chairman of the Independent Media Commission, George S. Khoryama, said that the training was timely as it came in the wake of the Repeal of Part V of the Criminal Libel Law and the enactment into law of the new IMC Act 2020, adding that the IMC, as the regulator of the Media, is now more pre-occupied with the prospect of a responsible Press.
George S. Khoryama pointed out that the training of such a nature is very important in fulfilling the expectations of the new IMC Act 2020 and the Media Code of Practice.
“Until you travel that is when you could realize that media institutions in this country are poor. The media is poor financially, professionally, technically and ethically and only a training of this sort could help to mitigate the militating effects on media growth,” he opined.
There are mixed feelings from among members of the journalism community as to whether there is freedom of information in Sierra Leone. President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla believes that ‘’we have been given the opportunity to practice our trade, but we must do so responsibly and professionally too.’’ Musa S. Kamara is a journalist that works with Radio Democracy, 98.FM in Freetown. To him, ‘’freedom of information is not absolute because there are top state officials that will just not talk to journalists.’’
In all of this, it will depend on who one talks to, but the fact that there is need for freedom of information and the press in the 21st century should not be overstated.