Liberian Information Minister Louis Brown deserves credit for showing up at a vipers’ nest of critics from the Monrovia media. Lamii Kpargoi, program director of jhr partner the Liberia Media Centre, joined other Liberians concerned with a free press in delivering a rhetorical drubbing upon the minister over an order by his president that appears to contradict the nation’s Freedom of Information law (FOI) and other legal obligations.
“Executive Order Number 38 runs totally contrary to the government’s stated pledge to abide by the right to information as spelled out in the Constitution of Liberia and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” panelist Kpargoi told journalists, students and interested parties during a freedom-of-information forum at Liberia University in Monrovia on Nov. 15.
Most of the criticism directed at Brown focused on the fact that the FOI law already existed, and Order 38, spun by the minister during his speech as a complement to the FOI act, in fact placed heavy new limits on the public’s right to information.
“The presidency is attempting to render the FOI law irrelevant through an irregular process,” Kpargoi argued. “The entire Part VI of the order . . . requires public servants to take on a mantle of total secrecy, something that is totally contrary to the stated principles in the FOI law.”
And it was President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s decree that high government officials’ declarations of their assets should remain confidential, in spite of the FOI law, that generated the most impassioned debate.
“The public does not have the right to know my personal information except with a court order,” Minister Brown thundered.
Responded Philip Wesseh, managing editor of The Inquirer, a local newspaper, “The feeling is that people go into government to steal. To prevent massive corruption, let us know what you have. It’s all towards accountability, transparency and against corruption.”