By John Baimba Sesay-China :
Sierra Leone continues to make progress in building her democratic credentials, especially in terms of putting up structures that are relevant to the promotion of good governance and participatory democracy. Elected in 2007, the country’s President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma has not only enacted a legislation that gives total independence to the body responsible to fight graft (a move believed to be first in the history of the sub region), he has also ensured the enabling environment for multiparty democracy as well as ensuring an open and people centered-government in the last over half a decade of steering the country’s leadership.
In 2009, when Society for Democratic Initiative (one of the leading civil society advocacy groupsfor a law guaranteeing access to public-held information) presented him a draft copy of the FOI Bill, President Ernest Koroma did promise to not only work towards the enactment of such a law during his tenure in governance, but also in working towards an opened and transparent government. This was after he had made similar promises whilst in opposition.
Access to public held information plays an integral part in the promotion of democracy and good governance. In a statement of support to Sierra Leone’s draft Access to Information bill in 2005, Article 19, a body leading the global campaign for free speech stated that a freedom of information law helps in conflict prevention and also leads to “openness and transparency and a free exchange of information engender trust between institutions of governments and its citizens”.
In keeping with the policy of implementing reforms aimed at promoting democracy in the country, President Koroma on 31st October, 2013 gave his assent to the right to Access Information Act 2013, following its enactment by Sierra Leone’s House of Parliament.
This new legislation, according to a news release from the Office of the President provides a legal right to Sierra Leoneans and corporate institutions to access any information held by public officials as well as information held by private organizations when such information is necessary for the enforcement of rights.
The country’s recent past (Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo) and current (Alhaji Alpha Kanu) Ministers of Information and Communications, and civil society groups (Society for Democratic Initiative (SDI) taking the lead) played a significant role in getting this law into action.
With President Ernest Bai Koroma determined to leave a legacy of the country’s growth not just in terms of infrastructural development, but also in the promotion of democracy, the enactment of an access to public held information legislation could undoubtedly help in bolstering his democratic credentials as well as placing the country amongst those countries with strong governance indicators.
Abdulai Bayraytay is Sierra Leone’s National Publicity and Outreach Coordinator in the Office of Government Spokesman. In an exclusive interview through social media (face book), he talks about where this latest development has taken Sierra Leone:
Bayraytay: The enactment of the law means the fulfillment of the commitment President Ernest Koroma gave whilst in the opposition that if elected he would keep to his promise of passing an access to information bill. He said yesterday (31st October 2013) that “my words are my bound”. It will further promote democracy, accountability and good governance. Infact, no sooner President Koroma signed it, Sierra Leone automatically became a member of the US Open Governance Partnership. As you know, President Koroma remains committed to press freedom and democracy, and the signing into law of the Access to Information bill was a clear demonstration that President Koroma’s democratic credentials could not be tainted in anyway, rather being bolstered by his avowed commitment to democracy and the respect for the rule of law at all times. Expectedly, President Koroma was very thankful of the support he received from SLAJ and civil society groups, especially the Society for Democratic Initiatives for their continued engagement for the bill to become a law.
JBS: There is the issue of misuse. . Are there exempt clauses to this new law?
Bayraytay: well, government is going to appoint an Information Commissioner and there are certain exempt clauses under which one cannot access information such as security-related issues, ongoing and planned police investigations, and or information that may have the tendency to undermine the country’s bilateral and multilateral relations with the rest of the world.
JBS: Will this new law be a driving force for the country to fully participate in the Millennium Challenge Cooperation process?
Bayraytay: well, the passing of the Access to Information bill will further enhance our participation in the MCC process. We must remind ourselves that last year, the erstwhile Minister of Information and Communications, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo took the bill to Parliament twice even before Sierra Leone qualified for the MCC but was not passed. The fact that current Information Minister, Alpha Kanu renewed its passing with some enthusiasm was a clear indication that President Koroma and the government remain committed to promoting those ideals that would further promote our democracy and the free speech and an open and transparent governance through access to information.
JBS: what next, after the President has given his Assent?
Bayraytay:As I mentioned earlier, Government will be appointing an Information Commissioner and make the law immediately operational. All Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) would have Information Officers that would be trained on the full and unfettered implementation of the new law.
JBS: How do you relate this move, to the ongoing advocacy by Sierra Leone’s media parent body-SLAJ, for the review of the 1965 Public Order Act?
Bayraytay: President Koroma has reassured the public and the press that he is committed to the review of the 1965 Public Order Act that criminalises libel. He has on several occasions expressed his optimism with a reminder that it would also involve a process. In fact, when the President realised that reviewing the 1991 constitution would further enhance our democracy and good governance, the government constituted an 80-man committee headed by veteran retired Appeals Court Judge Edmond Cowan with membership drawn from market women, teachers, students, journalist, and the wider spectrum of civil society organizations.
JBS: The President has just signed the Access to Information bill into law and SLAJ is complaining that the media is under attack. Any views on this?
Bayraytay: As a government, we have made the point very clear that the policy of President Koroma and Government in relation to the press is that of cordiality, recognising that the press as the fourth Estate has a very important role to lay in promoting and strengthening our democracy. However, the guarantees defined in chapter III of the 1991 constitution also made provisions for limitations since the rights of a free press stop where the rights of others start. Therefore, if citizens feel aggrieved that the person of the President and any other person for that matter have been berated, the courts should be tested since we live in a democracy where the rule of law is sacrosanct. That was why as a government we are very humbled with the congratulatory messages we have so far received from civil society, human rights organizations and the wider international society for the bold steps we took in passing the access to information law, one of the strongest in the world.
JBS: Thank you very much for your time
Bayraytay: My pleasure sir and thanks for the opportunity