Life support

Independent Information Commission is on ”Life Support” – says Maureen Sieh, Media Development Expert in Liberia

MONROVIA – The Independent Information Commission (IIC) is on life support due to insufficient support from the government of Liberia, said Maureen Sieh, Liberia’s leading media development expert.

The IIC, the government agency responsible for implementing the Freedom of Information Act enacted on September 16, 2010, was kicked out of its Sinkor office for failing to pay rent for two years. The agency is now installed in an office in the basement of the former maternity center on the bypass of the capital. The new office lacks electricity.

Madame Sieh spoke at the Corina Hotel in Sinkor on Wednesday when she was 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 organized 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 forced the IIC to violate the Freedom of Information Act because the organization does not have a website. The law requires public and government agencies to provide information to the public through a website or other platforms. The IIC website has been largely funded by donors. When the donor programs ended, the IIC could no longer afford to buy the website, so the website manager shut it down, she said.

“How can we talk about access to information when the main entity in charge of implementing the law is on life support? asked Ms. Sieh.

The event attracted around 75 people, including representatives from the media, academia, government and civil society organizations. The program aims to engage stakeholders and concerned citizens in promoting access to information in order to defend civil and human rights.

Ms. Sieh told attendees that the effort is unrealistic without a robust and functional IIC. She called on the PUL and other media actors to have a critical conversation about the challenges facing the IIC and to hold the government accountable to adequately fund the IIC.

The Freedom of Information Act has been around for 12 years, but it is having little to no impact due to lack of budget support and the government’s inability to meet demand for freedom of information.

Ms Sieh said the $414,000 budgeted for the organization mainly paid for the salaries of 20 employees. Last year, the agency had to beg for $5,000 allocated for operating expenses. Most of the time, staff have to dip into their pockets to photocopy documents, buy scratch cards for internet, transport and fuel. A media organization had to purchase a chest of drawers for the bathroom of the new IIC 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?” Ms. Sieh asked. hearing for failing to respond to an access to information request after the 90-day deadline? Are they going to sit in a warm, dark building?’

Sieh said the Freedom of Information Act has been around for over a decade now, so it’s time to start shaming government departments, agencies and other entities for not complying with the Freedom of Information Act. of information.

Ms. Sieh wondered if the IIC is on the government’s radar. For example, Clr. Mark Freeman’s term as commission chair expired on August 20, 2020, but the government has not announced a replacement. She called on the PUL and other media players to pressure the government to appoint a new president for the IIC. She noted that there is a lack of political will for freedom of information in Liberia.

“Until the government demonstrates its commitment to using the FOI as a tool of accountability and transparency by providing adequate resources, we may well remove the IIC from the life support system. And we know what happens when we take someone out of life support.”

The event attracted around 75 people, including representatives from the media, academia, government and civil society organizations. The program aims to engage stakeholders and concerned citizens in promoting access to information in order to defend civil and human rights.

Clr. Freeman, President of the IIC and Deputy Minister Boikai Fofana, officially launched the access to information campaign. Both shared Sieh’s sentiments on the challenges facing the IIC and the need for government support.

PUL President Charles Coffey said progress had been made in overcoming barriers to access to information, but there was still work to be done.

“Some of the barriers to accessing information include lack of awareness, poor infrastructure, declining budgets,” he said. “Other obstacles include some state actors and others the inability of the civil service to allow journalists to access required information.”

VOSIEDA program director Sadatu K. Fahnbulleh said the campaign aimed to raise awareness of 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 officials,” Fahnbulleh said. “Liberia took a step in the right direction in 2010 becoming the first country in West Africa and the 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 Team Leader, Mr. Timothy Kortu, said press freedom is deteriorating in Liberia because journalists continue to be harassed, intimidated and threatened with libel suits.

“Defamation charges continued to be leveled against media houses and journalists,” he said. “More and more Liberian journalists are still complaining of physical violence, threats and intimidation in their work.”

Euriahs Togar, chair of the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Liberia, said access to information remains a challenge in Liberia.

“The Freedom of Information Act is broken and only appears to be on paper and not in reality,” he said. “Information providers treat information seekers as if they were doing you a favor. It has been almost 12 years since this freedom of information was adopted, but it is a problem that citizens have to wait 30 days to access information from public and private entities. Make public information available now.”

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