Though the government of Sierra Leone has been making very public displays of initiatives that aim to promote transparency, since even before the current government came into power in 2007, there have been discussions about if and how to go about creating a Freedom of Information (FOI) Law.
Generally speaking, the purpose of FOI legislation is to legally require governments to release documents to journalists and other concerned members of the public. At the moment, Liberia is the only West African country with an FOI law, while South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda are the only others on the continent.
Sierra Leone currently has a bill in Parliament for the creation of an FOI Law. After it was first drafted, it was twice discussed in cabinet, was then moved to parliament, where it was discussed by the legislative committee on Communication and Information. It is yet to be passed.
The Sierra Leone FOI Bill was first proposed in 2005 by the Society for Democratic Initiatives in cooperation with the London-based human rights organization, Article 19. In 2008, Sierra Leone’s Information and Communication Minister, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo signed a commitment which agreed to pass the Bill into law.
Now, more than three years later at the Commonwealth Forum on Media and Development in Sierra Leone, Kargbo said that he hopes the bill will pass in the next six months.
“It has been delayed, but when parliament resumes the bill will be passed,” said Kargbo.
The government has been promoting its initiatives which they say aim to improve transparency of their operations. One example is the recently completed Government of Sierra Leone Online Mining Repository System, which publishes information on financial transactions between the government and mining companies. Though some see it as a step in the right direction in terms of increasing transparency in one of Sierra Leone’s biggest industries, it is not a replacement for real Freedom of Information legislation.
“As much as the system is promised to address issues of corruption, I don’t think it will holistically address the problem when there is the tendency for the officials of the ministry to only upload information that is in their own interest and not crucial information that the public will want to know about,” said Mohammed Konneh, Secretary General of the Association of Journalists on Mining and Extractives. “Without the [Freedom of Information] law, the system will not work well more so the people that are responsible to run the system will in some cases will be afraid to put certain information that the government considers confidential.”
The draft for the bill argues that FOI laws are not only as crucial to participatory democracy, accountability and good governance, but also as a fundamental human right, protected under international and constitutional law.
To view the 2005 draft of the bill, visit http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/analysis/sierra-leone.foi.05.pdf