Nigeria’s New FOIA

Reporters enjoy new freedoms in a long-repressive society

Journalism in Nigeria has never been easy work, and the new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which finally became law in May twelve years after the bill was first drafted, isn’t about to change that overnight. But having struggled through decades of repression under military rule, advocates of press freedom in Nigeria are in unusually optimistic mood.

“This law will help to shred the web of silence,” the Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka, who once had an underground newspaper operating out of his garage, told a public meeting in Lagos this summer. “The swagger of indifference will give way to nervous glances over the shoulder.”

The new law overrides the antiquated Official Secrets Act, which was imposed by imperial Britain in 1911. For the first time, public institutions are legally obliged to keep proper records and must respond to requests for information within seven days. There is also a provision for the protection of whistleblowers from prosecution.

Senior figures in Nigerian journalism have celebrated the law’s passing, but stress that the work of opening up their country has only just begun.

“It’s a remarkable achievement,” said Kunle Ajibade, publisher of TheNEWS, a venerable weekly magazine. “For journalists, it’s an empowering thing, but for this law to work we, as a society, will have to do extraordinary things, perhaps even amounting to a complete overhaul.”

Ajibade was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 after a story in TheNEWS displeased General Sani Abacha. He spent three years in jail, and remembers days when he would find fake copies of his magazine filled with stories in praise of the military junta.

While he welcomes the bill, Ajibade, like many Nigerian journalists, possesses something close to an absolute faith in the capacity of government officials to come up with new forms of chicanery. According to Ajibade, some may see the FOIA as simply a new opportunity to dupe journalists by releasing fake records to the public. He insists the new law is only the start of the long and difficult process of unravelling Nigeria’s culture of secrecy. He wants fellow journalists to redouble their efforts to obtain disclosure and independent verification.

“Even under democracy, journalists have to demonstrate courage,” says Ajibade. “But we’re here to stay. The desire to know what’s really going on is ingrained.”

To judge solely by the array of newspapers and magazines spread across street corners around Lagos, the media is booming. There are at least twenty established daily newspapers, and twelve TV channels, none of them state-owned. The country has over 120,000 professional journalists, according to the Nigerian Union of Journalists.

The FOIA is the latest in a series of encouraging signs since the return of democracy. In 1999, journalism became the only profession recognized in the new federal constitution, which enshrines the freedom of the media to hold the government to account. And in 2005, the Nigerian journalist Dele Olojede became the first African-born winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Yet the challenges faced by journalists in Nigeria today are numerous and deep-rooted. Last year, the Press Freedom Index ranked Nigeria a dismal 146th out of 178 countries—below Zimbabwe and just one place above Afghanistan—the country’s worst position since French-based group Reporters Without Borders began compiling the index in 2002.

Official intimidation of journalists has diminished since the days of “Decree Four,” a law that explicitly criminalized reporting which brought public officials into disrepute and authorized the head of state to ban individual media organizations. Still, government and the corporate sector exert significant control over the mainstream media. Reporters’ salaries often go unpaid, making them susceptible to brown envelope payments in return for positive coverage. Some are effectively hired by government departments as “media consultants” and hefty sums are routinely paid to media organizations in return for the suppression of damaging revelations.

“There is a tragic unwillingness among Nigerian publications to support serious investigative work,” says Omoyele Sowore, who expects the Nigerian government will, “defeat the noble aims of FOIA handily.”

Sowore is the publisher of Sahara Reporters, a popular citizen journalism site that he runs from New York. Together with with Pulitzer winner Olojede’s 234Next, Sahara Reporters has shouldered much of the burden of accountability journalism in recent years as the print press has struggled.

The affair of James Ibori, the former governor of oil-rich Delta State who is currently facing money-laundering charges in London, provides a telling insight into the contrasts at play in the Nigerian media today. Ibori is the publisher of the Daily Independent, and some of his reporters have not been paid for eleven months—one desk editor said he was told if he wanted his salary he should personally secure advertising revenue for the paper. However, the criminal investigation against Ibori was opened following dogged reporting from Sahara Reporters, which began a series of scathing exposes in 2005.

Sowore says his site, which regularly posts leaked documents, has already pioneered an “underground FOIA” that goes beyond what is possible under the new law.

“There is nothing in the FOIA law anywhere that make a genius of journalism,” says Sowore. “It is the passion, individual hard work, diligence, and most importantly the conscience of a reporter that will [make for good reporting], not the FOIA.”

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Elliot Ross has contributed to The Guardian, The Independent, and 234Next. Tags: , , ,