Our Public Affairs Section is pleased to partner with ICIR in order to deepen the discussion regarding the importance of the freedom of information act in strengthening democratic institutions in Nigeria, and frankly around the world. The right to information is fundamental to upholding transparency and accountability principles where are the cornerstone for strengthening democracy. One of the US Mission’s goals is to help strengthen democratic institutions, improve governance and the status of human rights. Focusing on key concepts such as understanding the tools required to succeed in obtaining government controlled data and how to advocate and isolate specific issues hindering your quest serves to inject resiliency into the tireless efforts you undertake in the media to uphold your constitutional responsibilities. We are grateful to have with us today some of Nigeria’s premier experts with us today who will share their experience and no doubt spark interesting conversation and points of debate.
As many of you know, just last week President Biden hosted the first Summit for Democracy where leaders of the world gathered to discuss the challenges to democracy in nations around the world. He noted – and I’m paraphrasing, “In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights, and — all around the world, democracy needs champions and continuous attention. American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions. Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation. And this is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view. Because the data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.
We view members of the media as champions in this effort. We celebrate the two journalists who recently won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their reporting on increasingly authoritarian regimes, highlighting the vital role of free expression in protecting peace and democracy.
At the Summit, the administration announced plans to support efforts to strengthen democracy in five areas:
- Supporting free and independent media.
- Fighting corruption.
- Bolstering democratic reformers.
- Advancing technology for democracy.
- Defending free and fair elections and political processes.
Among the new initiatives, and perhaps of interest to some of you is support to the multidonor International Fund for Public Interest Media. The fund will support independent media in areas with limited resources or in vulnerable settings. Another program will protect investigative journalists from censorship.
Here in Nigeria, at the beginning of the month Ambassador Leonard kicked off a series of regional editorial workshops and Town Halls targeted to promote democracy throughout Nigeria in partnership with the Nigerian Guild of Editors to encourage civil society and the media to raise the voices of those too often unheard, and to encourage people from all sectors of society to participate in political processes.
Refining tools and regulations are vital to a functioning democracy. In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives any person the right to request access to records of the Executive branch of the United States Government, except if the records requested are protected by one or more of the exempt categories of information. Throughout the 55 years of its existence, continuous training occurs at the local, state, and federal level to ensure that government employees understand their responsibilities in making information available.
The Fredom of Information Act in Nigeria passed ten years ago, and reflects the same desire to be accountable to Nigerians. However, differences may be seen in the law’s implementation, as the act has not received the much-needed attention from the public especially journalists. The need to ensure the full implementation of the Act is pertinent and if the avenues provided in the act to ask questions are not put to use, the struggle of those who fought for the passage of the act will be futile.
In some quarters, it has been alleged that while some government entities allow easy access, others refuse especially in some States within the federation where little or no willingness to implement the law has been demonstrated, not unlike the experience of many democracies around the world. Apart from this, lack of awareness has also marred the full implementation of the act.
So, this event aims at creating awareness and building the capacity of journalists whose effort the public rely on in asking pertinent questions regarding issues of national discourse. The right to information, will be enriched when people are aware of their rights and choose to exercise them. We look forward to the exchange of information and brain-storming which will inevitably occur from this distinguished audience. I thank the ICIR for their commitment towards this workshop and I wish you all robust deliberations.