Public information officers (PIOs) have called for better relationships with their bosses who represent various government ministries, agencies and commissions to embrace Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from the citizens.
In 2010, Liberia became the first West African nation to enact the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which guarantees easy and inexpensive access to information for the public who want to understand activities of ministries, agencies and commissions and other bodies supported by government funds.
The PIOs made the call on Wednesday at the end of a three-day intensive training in Monrovia under the Liberia Media Development Project, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Internews.
D. Webster Cassell, public information officer (PIO) at the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection (MGCSP), argued that the lack of cordial relationship between the PIOs and heads of institutions continues to hamper the provision of information to the media and the public.
“The FOI law supports PIOs in every government ministry, commission, and agency and so it is important for bosses to create the atmosphere for all PIOs in order to make them effective. We are between the public and various government entities,” Cassell said.
He further recommended to the Independent Information Commission (IIC) to monitor and evaluate PIOs as a way of handling some of the problems hampering their work at various entities, adding that “There are some institutions that do not have PIOs, while some continue to use their public relations officers (PROs) as PIOs, which is a conflict of interest.”
Ms. Maureen Sieh, journalist and advisor at Internews, said the training was intended to promote the FOI Law which has been slow to implement over the years, adding that “by 2020 Liberia will be celebrating 10 years since the enactment of FOI, and we need to know the kinds of cases that have emerged due to FOI requests.”
The training, said Sieh, was also meant to improve PIOs’ effectiveness in the implementation of the FOI Law in collaboration with the IIC, headed by Mark-Wla Freeman. “Our approach to this project is from multiple sources. We are working with journalists to teach them how to promote evidence based reporting, using FOI as a way to file or request information, and ensuring that the ministries and agencies respond to those requests,” Ms. Sieh said.
“We want to build the capacity of the Independent Information Commission, which is the enforcer of the FOI Law. They are the ones that should ensure that if ministries and agencies do not respond to requests, the journalist can take an appeal within 60 days. If no response, you take it to the IIC through an appeal and the IIC is going to have a hearing and give a ruling.”
Sieh said the idea is to make sure that journalists and civil society workers use the law and that the government responds, adding that the ICC has the capacity to investigate cases where people do not comply.
April O’Neal, deputy director for Democracy, Rights, and Governance at USAID, said oneness and transparency remain critical to effectively govern any nation, adding that actions taken in secret can lead to the mistrust of government. “By passing the FOI, Liberia took a bold step in allowing the public to access government data and information.” Agreeing with Sieh, she said “despite its enactment, the law is not widely used as envisaged.” She expressed gratitude to some of the government institutions, including the Public Procurement Concessions and Commission (PPCC), Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA), for helping to implement the FOI. “I have been impressed with how progressive Liberia is in terms of the FOI Act and also how responsive some government institutions have been to requests they received for information,” she said.
Sam Collins, spokesman for the Liberia National Police, blamed heads of some government entities for the lack of cordial working relationship with the PIOs for the common good of information sharing, especially to the public and the media. “We have some officials that are not concerned about the PIO and even PRO; and if the man doesn’t have any good relationship and access to the boss, he or she will not have any information to give the public or the media,” he argued.
The PIOs, however, called for more support from the government as a way to help them be effective, because they are distinct from public relations officers who are responsible for building the image of their institutions.