Liberian journalists frustrated with implementation of Freedom of Information law

A Liberian journalist, Rita Jlogbe Doue, had been worried about complaints from the country’s disability community that they were not receiving financial assistance from the National Commission on Disabilities (NCD), although funds were allocated in the national budget to cushion them annually.

At a time the Liberian economy is bearing the brunt of COVID-19, with even the physically abled struggling to cope, she was concerned that the country’s estimated 800,000 disabled people could be pushed further down the poverty line.

The Monrovia-based VOA/Front Page Africa correspondent got nosy.

Rita fell on the country’s 12-year-old Freedom of Information (FOI) law to seek answers.

“I wanted to find out whether it is true that the disabled community is not being supported and what had been stalling government support for the disabled community,” she said.

Her request included the total money disbursed to the Commission through the national budget for the fiscal periods of 2018-2019, 2019-2020; and 2020-2021 and expenditure reports, to include monies spent on operation and welfare.

To her shock, Rita said the head of the institution mandated to ensure the general welfare and education of persons with disabilities told her bluntly the data she requested did not exist.

“She replied that she doesn’t have records or documents to provide information because the information I requested was from 2018 to 2021. She didn’t come to meet anything, so she can’t give me anything in that regard,” Rita said, frowning and shaking her head.

The NCD Executive Director, Daintowon Domah Pay-Bayee, was appointed in June 2021 and the request was made in October 2021.

A similar request to the country’s Ministry of Finance only yielded the budgetary allocation and not the disbursements within the period.

Wrecked by two civil wars that got thousands of people physically and mentally disabled, the country’s Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) estimate that 99% of persons with disabilities live in extreme poverty, mainly due to exclusion from education, skills training, work and income generation opportunities.

Rita is not alone in being denied information by Liberia’s state institutions. Five out of 15 journalists, including Joseph Tumbey, a correspondent of M News Africa, who attended the launch of a manual on access to information and a one-day workshop for investigative and anti-corruption reporters on July 29, 2022, shared similar stories.

Curious about the numerous complaints from Liberians about the shortage of electricity meters, Joseph wrote to the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) in February 2022, seeking information on how many meters and transformers it had procured from 2018 to 2022.

He said the feedback he received was both irritating and amusing.

“I received feedback that the Chief Executive Officer of the LEC had travelled out of the country. I was asked not to call or email. After a month, I made a follow-up, no result,” he told the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).

The Liberian FOI law allows state entities 30 days to respond to request and another 30 days extension if they are unable to produce the information within the first 30 days.

He followed up again on the 60th day and then in the fourth month of the request.

Silence was all he had from the institution. He opted to publish the story.

Meanwhile, the Liberia Electricity Corporation says it loses about $35 million annually and needed to recover every cent from consumers to keep the powerlines running.

The company’s critics say customers who applied for meters five to seven years ago and those who requested the replacement of damaged meters are still waiting—a situation that increased power theft.

Participants at the workshop say the bottom line was that the country’s poor record keeping is haunting the implementation of the FOI law.

“Most of our institutions here don’t have database where they store information. Information is stored on flying sheet[manually]. Even at the various hospitals, for instance, records of patients should be on electronic database. If you go back to the same place in six months, you won’t find the record.”

“It sometimes makes our work very difficult, “Rita lamented.

Joseph agreed.

“It is important to improve our digital storage system. In some cases, it is not like they don’t want to give you the information. The manual storage system or the ancient way of saving[information] isn’t helping us. They’re not able to retrieve the information the citizens are asking for,” he told the MFWA.

But that is not all their problem with the implementation of the law.

The Liberian journalists said when the law was passed, they expected their chief arbiter for right to information, the Independent Information Commission, to bring their errant state institutions, refusing to release information, to order.

That optimism waned as fast as it started.

The journalists alleged that the organization’s head, Mark Bedor-Wla Freeman, who is also West Africa’s first Information Commissioner, persistently complains about lack of funds.

A publication of the Front Page, a Liberian news portal, confirmed it.

“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 Centre on Capital Bye-pass. The new office lacks electricity,” the report said.

Other journalists who spoke at the workshop said out of these frustrations, they decided not to use the law as it amounted to a waste of time and resources.

“We are not getting the information we request at most institutions or public agencies and the IIC is not helpful either,” a participant said.

However, when he launched the manual on access to information, the Deputy Minister of Information, Daniel Gayou, rallied Liberian journalists to use the law to cure speculative reportage in the media as well as public protests.

He said Liberian journalists and the public, in general, were not using the FOI law because it appeared they did not know their rights and remedies under the law.

He, therefore, commended the Media Foundation for West Africa and its partners for the summarized version of the country’s FOI law.

A Programme Officer of the MFWA, Adizatu Moro Maiga, was optimistic that the manual would become one of the important tools for investigative and anti-corruption reporting in Liberia.

The workshop was facilitated by Liberian lawyer, Alphonsus Zeon, and Seth J. Bokpe, a Senior Reporter with The Fourth Estate, the public interest and accountability project of the Media Foundation for West Africa.

The event forms part of the MFWA’s project on “Enhancing Press Freedom, Women’s Digital Rights and Accountable Governance in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone” which is being supported by the Dutch Foreign Ministry through the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ghana.

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