Access to information is to all intents and purposes still a pipedream in Sierra Leone, four years after the passage of an Act which makes it mandatory for citizens to access information held by or is under the control of public authority or a private body.
The euphoria that greeted the passage of the Right to Access Information Act, which created the Right to Access Information Commission (RAIC), may have well been premature as recent development indicates that it was another ploy to hoodwink donors, especially the United States government, that public institutions are willing to share information to citizens without delay.
Yet four years down the line, the commission remains largely underfunded and undermined by a government which by every indication lacks the political and moral will to share information, especially those deemed as 'sensitive.'
Accordingly, ministries, departments and agencies continue to 'criminally' violate the Act and defy the hapless commission. One such errant ministry is the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MOHS) under the leadership of Dr. Abubakarr Fofana.
Editor of Concord Times, Abu-Bakarr Sheriff, wrote to the ministry on 2 October 2017 requesting information on the Ebola hazard pay and certain procurement transactions during the epidemic, some of which the Auditor General' Report had flagged as suspicious.
The request was pursuant to section 2(1) of the Act which stipulates that "every person has the right to access information held by or is under the control of a public authority".
Despite drawing the attention of MOHS officials to relevant section of the Act, they have criminally refused to avail the information. And to further underline their disrespect for citizens and disdain for the rule of law, MOHS officials have scandalously failed to acknowledge receipt of the letter.
As if their shameful act was not enough, the lawless minister and his permanent secretary have also failed to respond to a letter written by RAIC, requesting that the ministry avail the information to the editor of Concord Times.
A letter written by one Ester M. Kanu, dated 7th November, 2017 reminded ministry officials of their obligation under the law to make available the information. Ms. Kanu wrote in the said letter that, "... the Commission is requesting that you make available the said information in accordance with ... the Right to Access Information Act, 2013."
The letter further warned MOHS officials that they were in violation of section 13 of the Act as a result of their non-compliance, adding that, "Any person who without reasonable excuse, fails to supply information requested under this Act, commits an offence and is liable to a fine not exceeding Ten Million Leones in the case of an individual and One Hundred Million Leones in the case of a body corporate or a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months or to both the fine and imprisonment."
Notwithstanding that letter of 7 November, MOHS officials continue to violate the Act, which has been touted by the current administration as one of the progressive laws passed in aid of transparency and accountability.
However, the grim reality is that officials in government, not least current Minister of Health and Sanitation, Dr. Abubakarr Fofana, has undermined efforts by journalists and citizens to access information.
Lawyer Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, executive director of Society for Democratic Initiative, is quoted to have strongly expressed doubt about the willingness of government to implement Access to Information law. "I don't think there is a political will to open up the system because Government of Sierra Leone does not want to be transparent. The resource is the main problem but you could see that because the central government doesn't want to implement the law, they starve the commission of money," he said in an interview with Concord Times this year.
Meanwhile, it now remains to be seen whether the Right to Access Information Commission will invoke the spirit and letters of the Act to punish errant officials in the ministry by way of fines or even jail terms.