Communique : Owerri Workshop for Grassroots , CSOs on FOI Act



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Workshop for Grassroots and Civil Society Organizations on the Freedom of Information Act 

Organized by:

Media Rights Agenda 

At Newcastle Hotels, Owerri on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 

COMMUNIQUE

Preamble

Media Rights Agenda (MRA) hosted a one-day sensitization and awareness generation workshop on the Freedom of Information Act for civil society and grassroots organizations at Newcastle Hotels in Owerri, Imo State, on Tuesday, October 16, 2012. The workshop was organized with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through Pact Nigeria, to raise awareness among civil society and grassroots organizations for the effective implementation of the FOI Act.

The objectives of the workshop, which had 55 participants from diverse civil society organizations, were to reach out to organizations in the South East geo-political zone of Nigeria, to familiarize them with the content of the Act which will enable them create further awareness about it in their communities; and seek ways of ensuring that the organizations mainstream the Act in the work that they do.

The workshop was facilitated by Mr. Edetaen Ojo, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda; Mr. Tive Denedo, Director of Campaigns; and Ms Jennifer Onyejekwe, Programme Officer.  Participants engaged in lively exchange of views, making insightful comments, relating organizational challenges and sharing of experiences and about how to use the Act in the sectors where they work.

Following the presentations and discussions at the workshops, the following observations and recommendations were made:

Observations

1.      Despite the clarity of Section 1 and other provisions of the FOI Act about the supremacy of the Act over other laws, civil servants and public institutions continue to use the existence of the Official Secrets Act and other such laws and guises to deny citizens their right to information.

2.      The FOI Act is a transformative tool, which if effectively and consistently deployed, can have far-reaching impact in making the governance process more responsive and bringing about an improved quality of life for all citizens of the country.

3.      Many public institutions continue to face challenges in transiting from paper-based information storage systems to more modern ICT-driven information management system that can facilitate ease of filing, organizing, processing of requests, retrieval and release of information in a less stressful and cost-effective manner for both government and citizens. These challenges remain a significant threat to the effective implementation of the FOI Act.

4.      Although the media has been awash with comments about the FOI Act being watered down before it was passed by the National Assembly, the contents of the Act are in stark contrast to such reports.  The Act contains several very strong and useful provisions that guarantee access for ordinary people to information held by government as well as some non-governmental bodies and provide some remedies against non-compliance.

5.      Many Nigerians are yet to demonstrate their preparedness to institutionalize a system of open and transparent government by taking advantage of the FOI Act to consistently and regularly make demands for information held by government institutions and to monitor public institution to which the Act applies. When public demand for information becomes routine and high, public institutions will be compelled to put structures in place to meet this demand.

6.      It is unconscionable that with less than three months before the end of the year, the Imo State Government has yet to adopt an annual budget for 2012.

Recommendations

1.      The Attorney-General of the Federation should increase efforts in creating awareness and enlightenment among public institutions and within the civil service about the superiority of the FOI Act to others laws, especially the Official Secrets Act.

2.      Civil society organizations should work together to create strong platforms for using the FOI Act and monitoring its strict implementation in order to ensure that the Act achieves its objectives enthroning transparency and accountability in governance.

3.      Every public institution to which the Act applies should take advantage of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve its record-keeping system, to make information filing and retrieval less cumbersome and also meet up with its obligation on proactive disclosure.

4.      Furthermore, the Attorney-General of the Federation should provide guidelines to all public institutions making it clear that applications for information under the FOI Act may also be made by email and that such email requests should be treated as valid applications for information under the Act.  Accordingly, public institutions should be required to put in place facilities and systems for the receipt of requests by email, such facilities and systems should be adequately publicized by the institutions and should have the capacity to generate automatic responses to requesters in the form of acknowledgements of receipt.

5.      Citizens, particularly civil society activists, should continually test the FOI Act through collaboration, networking and sharing of experiences in the use of the Act.

6.      The Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and all relevant authorities in the public sector should undertake activities to widely publicize the Act and ensure adequate awareness of its provisions both within public institutions and among the general populace.  There should be continuous sensitization on the Act, both to the public and to public officials.

7.      Civil society organizations should ensure that they have a good grasp of the contents of the FOI Act to avoid being intimidated and manipulated by public officials and institutions that are ready to play on their ignorance and are unwilling to grant access to information and records in their possession.

8.      Civil society actors should come together to monitor the levels of compliance and implementation of the FOI Act by public institutions, with special focus on public institutions that are within their thematic areas of focus.

9.      The Attorney General of the Federation, in accordance with his oversight responsibilities, should put in place a fee structure that is standardized across all public institutions in order to ensure that the system of charges is consistent, reasonable and is not used to deny requesters information.

Conclusion

Participants agreed that the FOI Act is an important law that will be useful in assessing the performance of public officials in procurement and budget implementation, among other areas. They agreed to engage in strict monitoring of public institutions to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act.

 

Participants agreed to work collaboratively in response to the absence of a 2012 budget in Imo State with less than three months to the end of the year and to put pressure on relevant officials and institutions in the State to speedily adopt a budget for 2012 and to implement it faithfully.

Participants also agreed to use the FOI Act to ascertain the status of the Public Procurement Law and the Fiscal Responsibility Law in Imo State as it is unclear whether the Public Procurement Bill and the Fiscal Responsibility Bill submitted by the State Government to the Imo State House of Assembly had been passed by the House and signed into Law by the Governor.

 

Adopted in Owerri, Imo State, this Tuesday, the 16th day of October 2012.

 


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