Thursday, June 14, 2012

In Lagos, US embassy tasks media on FoI Act

AS part of efforts to ensure effective use of the Freedom of Information Act, the United State Consulate General, Lagos Office last week organized Digital Video Conference (DVC) featuring Ms. Elizabeth Bryant as guest speaker. 
  Bryant, a Paris-based journalist with over 15 years on the job, stated that making document and information easily available by government is usually not the norm anywhere, saying that journalists who seek government documents to buttress their reports must push and push, demand and demand to get the document.
   Citing two examples in using the Freedom of Information Act in the United States, one, her personal experience and the other by a team of journalists, Bryant disclosed that while it took her a whole year to get document on doctors who indulged in taking hard drugs, it took the other group of journalists, 15 years to get the document they sought from government. 
  She said that the journalist who started the process had left the New York Times when the document sought was got in January 2012.
   She implored media houses that want to constantly have investigative reports in their publication to have a dedicated team of investigative reporters, whose main responsibility is to do investigative stories, with less pressure of deadlines.
  According to her, state correspondents are likely not going to be doing investigative stories because they have to report many issues and cover several beats.
   To her, it must however be made clear that the FOI Act is for all the citizens and not journalists alone while the government must understand that the citizens are the boss and information must be made available to them. She also said that because it is the right of the citizens to know what those elected were doing; the government must provide them with information when they demand such.
  She enjoined journalists to cultivate the habit of having sources who provide information though having government documents is a powerful weapon in times of litigation. She however said that reporters must be careful with information provided by sources because must sources have agenda when they provide information whether solicited or otherwise. 
  And to ensure a better understanding of the Act by the public, which would promote good usage of the Law, she suggested collaborative efforts between the government, its agencies and civil societies in organising enlightenment programmes.
Participants at the media chat

She also gave an insight into the operational mode in United States, where the federating units had to come up with their own version of the Law. In Nigeria, there has been argument whether the states should wholly adopt the Law enacted by the federal government or each of the 36 states should come up with a version of its own Freedom of Information Act.
   In summing up, the coordinator of the programme at the Lagos end, Mr. Femi Omowunmi, after the presentation by Bryant and the question-and- answer session, said that the United State Consulate in Nigeria is always ready to work with journalists and media related organisations to promote better understanding of the content of the Law and its usage.

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