Monday, 13 June 2011

Redefining our culture with the FOI Act

This was published this morning as my first blog for the Daily Times of Nigeria under the title Redefining our culture with the FOI Act and it highlights how our culture of documentation and archiving will have to change.

A duty to all

The signing of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 by President Goodluck Jonathan has been lauded by many especially the media as a major development for Nigeria democracy.

It is however important that we do not lose the real changes that this development might bring to the Nigerian information gathering and sharing space.

There is no doubt that with this Act the media now has the duty and responsibility to seek after fact, ensure they obtain the truth, conduct intelligent and thorough analysis of data as well as strive to make our more representative democracy borne of the 2011 elections more accountable and responsive to the needs of the general populace.

Document and catalogue

This Act demands a number of changes to the way all public institutions do their business; they must fully document information about all their activities, operations and businesses, and in doing so, the information must be organised to facilitate public access.

By extension, it might mean that all written material, files, folders, records stored on various devices, cards, forms, maps, plans, graphs, charts, drawings, photographs, films, images, negatives, microfilm and much more dumped in all recesses of organisations will have to be retrieved, committed to some sort of electronic archive and catalogued, it might mean that each major department hire an archivist or librarian to handle these matters.

Along with this will come the need to properly classify the information into openly accessible public domain material and different levels of access depending on the needs for secrecy, privacy, confidentiality, importance and seriousness, though the Official Secrets Act does not provide a blanket cover for public interest material and the onus of the burden of proof is now on the public institution to justify why access to information is declined.

Efficiency and security

The 7-day limit granted by the Act to produce information requested under the Act means the cataloguing process needs to become more efficient; backlogs of requests need to be prevented so as to avoid sanctions and penalties on the officials of the public institutions.

The matter of electronic documentation also means that many of the poorly designed Internet websites, homepages and databases would need a radical revamp; it can also present the opportunity to process FOI requests through an electronic kiosk system facilitating even faster access to the information being requested.

Checks and balances would then need to be implemented to ensure that information does not get altered illegally; that information provided is not falsified or denial of access to certain bits of information are not as a result of the destruction of the same; it could be the beginning of e-government in Nigeria.

Use judiciously

The biggest responsibility that this Act confers on all Nigerians is first that of trust and then the need to verify, sources, information and detail, the need to commit to getting the whole truth whilst eschewing sensationalism, speculation and rumour.

I hope that those who use this Act will do so judiciously, without malice and with every sense of purpose for the betterment of our democracy; its abuse will only confirm the fears that kept the bill moribund for years in the legislative pipeline.

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