This paper comes in the wake of the 2010 World Press Freedom Day marked by the world including Nigeria on 3 May, 2010. One aspect of press freedom that is of interest to me having regard to its importance in building the Nigerian nation is the need for freedom of information (FOI) or access to information held by public officials. It is now a cliché to say that there is a culture or veil of secrecy among public office holders in Nigeria. This will be buttressed with an ongoing brouhaha in the Nigerian polity. In November 23, 2009 President Yar’Adua collapsed and was rushed to a Jeddah hospital in Saudi Arabia, and for the first time his medical condition of acute percarditis was officially disclosed to Nigerians. But since then, it has been a hide-and-seek game between Nigerians and the “cabal” as to his true state of health, and possibly whereabouts. This has resulted to the thrive of rumour mongering as even the Acting President recently declared in a CNN interview that he has not seen Mr. President. Thank God for the ever vibrant civil society and “ingenuity” of the National Assembly, Nigeria escaped another major set back in its democratisation process. Bottom line is that the last of Mr. President’s absentee state is yet to be heard or seen and it is partly attributable to the absence of an FOI legal regime in Nigeria that allows Nigerians to be treated with so much contempt and disregard by those in public offices with a flagrant infringement of their right of access to information. No doubt, there are adverse implications because information cannot be suppressed without dire consequences for social cohesion and stability.
Ironically, the Freedom of Information Bill that will provide a remedy has been missing in action in the National Assembly. It is, therefore, intended in this paper to examine the right to FOI in order to highlight its importance and need to Nigeria’s growth and development.
RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
In its very first session in 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59(I) stating that: “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” The right to freedom of information is a component of the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the basic laws and constitutions of virtually all of today’s States. In Nigeria, the right to freedom of expression is enshrined under Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) 1999 to the effect that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and “to receive” and impart ideas and information without interference. However, under Section 45 of CFRN 1999, this right may be limited or derogated from by any law that is “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society” in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.
In international jurisprudence, the international community has in various human rights treaties upheld and guaranteed the right to FOI together with its protection under customary international law. Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966 contain similar statements of the right to freedom of expression, though the latter is very elaborate in its provisions. Article 19(2) of the ICCPR specifically stipulates that: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; ‘this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart’ information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. (Italics supplied for...