- Category: Barack Murtala
- Published on Friday, 20 May 2011 12:02
- Written by Barack Murtala
- Hits: 3191
Earlier this year, first the House, then the Senate passed an imperfect Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill. It was assumed that President Goodluck Jonathan’s signature on the bill would shortly follow, but alarm bells began to ring when the Special adviser on…, Alhaji…. said he would advise the president against signing the bill due the amount of transparency it would give to journalists. But to the president’s credit, he came out
to strongly back the bill, considering that he has to dance to the tune of his supporters in the Western world, however little has been reported on it since then.
Electioneering may have been a good excuse for the delay in signing the bill into law, but considering that elections ended three weeks ago, the further delay is worrisome. Obviously, harmonisation or reconciliation of the two versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate separately is needed, and that has been ongoing over the past fortnight, but the fear and possibility remains that the president would play a fast one and veto the bill by not signing it as this legislative session comes to an end. Obasanjo used this same trick and avoided accenting to the bill even after it was passed by both chambers during his tenure. This means that a new FOI bill would need to be passed by the next legislature when they are inaugurated, making it a third time that we would have to go through this farce.
But this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, considering that the version passed by the Senate, has in it a contentious provision that would force journalists to reveal their sources. This would obviously discourage whistle-blowing, which is important in exposing corrupt and criminal practices of those in position of authority. There is no place in the democratic world where such a double-edged approach to journalism exists. So if the president fails to accent the bill, with over 70% of the current legislators are not returning in the next session, it’s not too far-fetched to hope that a progressive version of the FOI Bill would be passed into law by the incoming legislators. But as the old adage says – “a bird in hand is better than 10 in the forest”. Besides, there is the real possibility that the provision would be dropped when the Senate version is harmonised with the House version. In addition, I believe there is a law called the Journalist’s Act which explicitly mentions the anonymity of journalistic sources, and that will directly negate the offending provision in the version passed by the Senate. The judiciary would have to sort out the mess created by the legislature, and considering the overall performance of that arm of government (although dogged by credible allegations of corruption), I’d take my chances with the Nigerian courts any day.
In the end, none of this may be of consequence as in the waning days of this legislative session, the Senate earlier this week changed its rules to allow bills under consideration in one session can be carried over to the succeeding Senate. This would allow the bill to remain under consideration after May 29th, giving the President more time to sign it into law. This is a critical bill, and although it is presently imperfect, it would give Journalists much needed legal backing in access to governmental records and information, thereby increasing transparency in the activities of the government and its partners. This can only be good for the progress of our country and it would undoubtedly strengthen our democracy. The president needs to act to improve his very poor record on corruption, this bill gives him a fantastic opportunity to do so, and I hope he takes it.