Desmond Chukwuma Ibeh, Nigeria
It is no secret in Nigeria that accessing information by the media has always bothered people in government and some members of the legislature and the judiciary. In Nigeria, there has been leg-dragging over the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill introduced two years ago.
There are laws in the country preventing the media from seeking information. It is to break this barrier that the search for freedom of information originated. Whereas it can be said that government may withhold some classified information, it should open itself up, and avail the media access to those information which does not pose any danger to the security of the nation. Again, the question as to what is sensitive information arises. What should be classified is debatable, and caution should be taken in determining what should be protected and what should be made public.
So impenetrable is the veil of secrecy that some government departments withhold information from each other under the guise of official secrets laws. There are instances where civil servants refuse to give out information even after being asked to do so. Under the present situation, it is difficult for Nigeria to boast of a dream for a free press.
The result of all these is that journalists are denied access to information which is critical to accurate reporting. It has proved difficult for example to expose the web of corruption in the country because vital information is not available to the media.
Information is deliberately guarded with great passion by government organizations and individuals in the course of discharge of their responsibilities. They play a role in restricting access to information, indirectly undermining the UNESCO call for a more enlightened global society, as well as denying the people in the country access to ingredients for intellectual freedom. Information that should be released to the public should never be shielded from the people in the name of government and its agents acting as opinion leaders.
Restriction on the free flow of information gives rise to rumours and speculations, often rampant in this part of the world. Rumour is prevalent because of the propensity of governments and their agencies to suppress information. Rumour is relied upon as a source of information not just in Africa but also in many developing countries where autocratic tendencies of government are found. Questions are often asked over why some governments pretend to be democratic when they are always suppressing information on important issues of concern to the populace. Information which should be readily available to the public is intentionally withheld, giving room for rumours to be peddled.
The Nigerian government’s lack of commitment to informing the public is responsible for the failure of the National Assembly to pass the Freedom of Information Bill. Another way the government hampers the free flow of information is using the Official Secrets Act, which bars public servants from speaking to the press unless they obtain permission from the appropriate authorities. Government’s lack of interest in publishing and making available papers on debates in the National and State Houses of Assembly also prevents the free and timely flow of information.
Mr Desmond Chukwuma Ibeh is a chief programme producer in Voice of Nigeria.