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Nigerian Journalists Push for Greater Access to Government Information

It’s eight years since Nigeria returned to democracy, and journalists say their working conditions are a lot better than under the country's long years of military dictatorship, where the government often withheld nformation from the public. Despite the change, many journalists in Nigeria say they still suffer from a lack of access to information. The National Union of Journalists, human rights activists and civil society groups, support a Freedom of Information Act, to encourage transparency in governance. It says such a law will also help journalists hold government officials accountable, and reveal corruption. From Lagos , Jacqueline Ogoh Reports.

The atmosphere under which the press operates in Nigeria has dramatically changed for the better since the end of military rule. For decades, military governments incarcerated and killed journalist, and sealed publishing houses.

Despite these advances, hurdles remain. For example, journalists are still waiting for a law that would facilitate access to government documents. This would allow the press to more easily monitor and scrutinize government operations for the public.

During the past administration of President Olusegun Obasnjo, there was pressure on the legislature by interest groups for speedy action on the passage of the Bill, to no avail.

Public comments centered on speculation that the lawmakers were nervous the passage of the bill could mean the press would be able to examine their own private records.

The freedom of information Bill, which is still before the legislature, seeks to give every Nigerian the right to access documents and information held by government, government institutions and agencies, as well as private bodies performing public functions.

A former chairman of the Nigerian union of journalists, Lanre Arogundade, explains.

"The current constitution in Nigeria provides that journalists should hold the government accountable to the people." he says. "In fact, the section of the constitution, which is section 22, actually gives the media the responsibility of monitoring governance. But then, there is no tool for the media to do so. You never can compare [the transparency and accountability of political systems with ] freedom of information with one where it doesn’t exist."

Arogundade said the lack of a freedom of information law is not the only thing discouraging openness and honesty in Nigeria.

The other is the oath of secrecy, taken by public servants:

"When they [are hired], they are made to swear an oath that they will protect government information,' he said. "So, the existing regime is one that does not allow dissemination of information….even information that is already in the public domain. Because of that atmosphere of secrecy, they say "oh oh no!. We can’t release it!." It could be that ridiculous."

Despite the lack of a law on freedom of information, Arogundade says journalists often follow up on reports made public by the Nigerian government’s anti-corruption agencies, while others strive to carry out independent investigations on corruption.

"I do remember that THE NEWS magazine did stories to uncover the corrupt practices of a number of governors. I can also remember the specific case of the former inspector- general of police, Tafa Balogun. THE NEWS magazine first had a cover story that the man was corrupt. It was after that, that the EFCC, (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) came out to corroborate that fact," he said.

The former civilian administration of Olusegun Obasanjo, began a war against corruption using anti-corruption agencies. But journalists questioned the stance taken by the government in fighting corruption, insisting its efforts can never be completely thorough, without a freedom of information act, which would enhance the ability of journalists to act as watchdogs.

With the current administration of President Umaru Musa Yar’adua in place, Nigeria’s Freedom of Information coalition says it will continue to campaign for the act.