MONROVIA – The Independent Information Commission (IIC) is on life support because of inadequate support from the government of Liberia, said Maureen Sieh, Liberia’s leading media development expert.
The IIC, the government agency charged with implementing the Freedom of Information Law enacted September 16, 2010, was evicted from its Sinkor office for failing to pay rent for two years. The agency is now housed in a basement office in the Old Maternity Center on Capital Bye-pass. The new office lacks electricity.
Madam Sieh spoke Wednesday at the Corina Hotel in Sinkor when she served as the keynote speaker at the launch of the National Access to Information Campaign sponsored by VOSEIDA West Africa, the Volunteers for Sustainable Development in Africa. The event was held in collaboration with the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and the University of Liberia, with funding from UNDEF, the United Nations Democracy Fund.
The government’s failure to provide adequate funding has forced the IIC to violate the FOI law because the organization has no website. The law requires public and government agencies to provide information to the public via website or other platforms. The IIC website has been largely funded by donors. When donor programs ended, the IIC could not afford the website, so the web manager shut it down, she said.
“How can we talk about access to information when the major entity charged with implementing the law is on life support?’’ Madam Sieh asked.
The event attracted about 75 people including stakeholders from the media, academia, government and civil society organizations. The program seeks to engage relevant stakeholders and citizens in promoting access to information with the goal of defending civil and human rights.
Madam Sieh told participants that the effort is unrealistic without a robust and functioning IIC. She called on the PUL and other media stakeholders to have a critical conversation about the challenges facing the IIC and hold government accountable to adequately fund the IIC.
The FOI law has been around for 12 years, but it is having little or no impact because of the lack of budgetary support and the government’s failure to response to FOI request.
Madam Sieh said the $414,000 budgeted for the organization primarily pays salaries for 20 employees. Last year, the agency had to beg for $5,000 allocated for operational expenses. Most times, staff have to dip in their pockets to photocopy documents, buy scratch cards for internet, transportation and fuel. A media organization had to buy commode for the bathroom at the IIC’s new office. The lack of electricity makes it difficult for the IIC to hold hearings and other important meetings.
“Without electricity, how can the IIC hold hearings on FOI in a dark , hot office? Madam Sieh asked. “What if the Minister of Finance, the Minister of State or Information was cited to a hearing for failing to respond to an FOI request after the 90-day period? Will they sit in a hot, dark building?’’
Sieh said the FOI law has been around for more than a decade now, so it’s time to begin shaming government ministries, agencies and other entities for failing to comply of the FOI law.
Ms. Sieh wondered whether the IIC is on the government’s radar. For example, Cllr. Mark Freeman tenure as chair of the commission expired August 20, 2020, but the government has not announced a replacement. She called on the PUL and other media stakeholders to pressure the government to appoint a new chair for the IIC. She noted that there is a lack of political will for FOI in Liberia.
‘’Until the government demonstrates a commitment to using the FOI as a tool of accountability and transparency by providing adequate resources we might has well take the IIC off life support. And we know what happens when we take someone off life support.’’
The event attracted about 75 people including stakeholders from the media, the university, government and civil society organizations. The program seeks to engage relevant stakeholders and citizens in promoting access to information with the goal of defending civil and human rights.
Cllr. Freeman, the IIC’s chair and Assistant Minister Boikai Fofana, officially launched the Access to Information Campaign. Both shared Sieh’s sentiments about the challenges facing the IIC and the need for government’s support.
PUL’s President Charles Coffey said some strides have been made in addressing the barriers in accessing information, but more work needs to be done.
“Some of the barriers to accessing information include lack of awareness, poor infrastructure, declining budgets,’’ he said. “Other barriers include some state actors and others in public service inability to allow journalists access requisite information needed.’’
VOSIEDA Program Manager Sadatu K. Fahnbulleh, said the campaign is intended to raise awareness on Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution and the 2010 Freedom of Information Act.
“According to Article 15 of our constitution, freedom of information as a right includes the right to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right to be informed about the government and its functionaries, Fahnbulleh said. “Liberia took a step in the right direction when in 2010 it became the first country in West Africa, and sixth on the continent to establish a comprehensive right to information law. ‘’
In his overview of the 12-month National Access to Information Campaign, VOSIEDA’s Team Leader Mr. Timothy Kortu, said press freedom is deteriorating in Liberia because journalists continue to face harassment and intimidation and threats of libel suits.
“Libel charges continued to be leveled against media houses and journalists, ‘’he said. “More Liberian journalists still complain of physical violence, threats, and intimidation in their work.’’
Euriahs Togar, Chair of the Mass Communication Department at the University of Liberia, said access to information remains a challenge in Liberia.
“The FOI law is not working and only appears to be only on paper and not in reality,’’ he said. “ Information providers treat information seekers like they are doing you a favor. It has been nearly 12 years since this FOI was passed, but it is a problem that citizens should have to wait 30 days to access information from public and private entities. Make public information available now.’’