Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Senate passes harmonised FOI Bill

The Senate on Tuesday passed the harmonised version of the Freedom of Information Bill, reducing the weight of the penalty for destroying or falsifying public records by any public officer.

The House of Representatives in its version recommended that, “It shall be an offence punishable with three years imprisonment for any officer of a public institution to destroy alter, falsely or deliberately misrepresent information kept in his custody.”

But this version was jettisoned for the one proposed by the Senate which reduced the penalty from three years to one year.

The harmonisation committee, however, adopted the House of Representatives version of Clause 2 of the bill, which represents the crux of the FOI law.

Clause 2 provides for the rights citizens to have access to all records or information contained in any form on request.

It states that, “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other Act, Law or Regulation, the right of any person to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency of institution howsoever described, is hereby established.

“An applicant herein need not demonstrate any specific interest in the information being applied for. Any person entitled to the right to information under this bill, shall have the right to institute proceedings in a court to compel any public institution to the provisions of this Act.”

Although there were exceptions to the freedom to have access to information if it affects defence, economy and law enforcement proceedings, the bill however provided a caveat in Clause 12, ordering the release of such information if the benefits of access to the information far outweighs the damage if the information is disclosed.

The bill provided in clause 8, a N500,000 fine when a case of wrongful denial of access is established against the defaulting officer or institution on conviction.

Chairman of the Conference Committee, Senator Ayogu Eze, said with the passage of the harmonised version, it would be sent to the President for his signature.

He said he believed that the bill would be signed into law before the end of the current dispensation, which expires this week. “I will be surprised if the bill returns to the National Assembly not signed by the President,” he said.


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