NARRATIVE REPORT OF A TWO DAY WORKSHOP HOSTED BY THE LIBERIA FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COALITION FOR THIRTY CSOs, MEDIA AND LOCAL OFFICIALS FROM SIX COUNTIES WITH FUNDING FROM OSIWA AND HELD IN BUCHANAN, GRAND BASSA COUNTY FROM APRIL 8th – 9th 2016.
The Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition, (LFIC) has implemented an aspect of project: Deepening the FOI Regime: A Key Human Rights Factor in the Decentralization of Local Governance in Liberia.
The training of CSOs, Community radio journalists and local authorities was conducted in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County at the county Youth center from the 8th through the 9th of April 2016.
The reporting period takes cognizance of the cited training workshop activity and the construction of website, salaries- administrative and utility costs, among other things.
Specifically the outcome of the training workshop has been lauded in the evaluation of the training recipients as very useful in their accountability and transparency promoting obligations.
It was based on power point projection, mini lectures and interactive exchange that blended best practices and local context.
Training content sought to present the broad outline of the FOI law, its importance and impacts on local government administration within the context of citizens participation special focus on the redress mechanism and the showcasing of the web portal developed and launched by the Ilab in partnership with the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition as part of commitment under the Open Government Partnership which the LFIC is part of.
For the first time stakeholders which included media, civil society actors and local officials, from the counties of Bomi, Cape Mount, Gbarpolu, Margibi, Bong and Grand Bassa counties, were privileged to be led through the process of filing a request on the web portal (www. Infoliberia.org). Facilitators for the workshop included Kamara Abdullah Kamara, President of the PUL, and Atty. Alphonsus Zeon, Deputy Lead on FOI at the Carter Center Liberia office, and Anderson Meimen, acting head of CENTAL.
The training substantially led to the creation of network of the six counties in Bomi, Cape Mount, Gbarpolu, Grand Bassa and Montserrado.
Board members of LFIC were in attendance to add value to the effort in revitalizing the coalition that will champion civil society, media and local government synergy building in mainstreaming the FOI regime in the formative decentralization political configuration process.
Day 1 Summary of Presentations
Atty Alphonsus Zeon of the Carter Center Access to Information said that there is need for continuous awareness raising effort in deepening FOI in Liberia in the good governance framework of Liberia.
One participant commented on the fact that Information Officers are handicapped in aiding disclosure in the few counties where they have been deployed. The issue of the overbearing nature of institutional bosses that will subdue the work of Information officers was also mentioned as a factor undermining FOI implementation in the counties. One participant made reference to his application for Ebola related information from Global Community and a staff referred them to the bosses in America.
Atty. Zeon responded that in such a case there are some information provided on the website of some agencies and it is always prudent to do research from such proactive disclosure channels before filing requests. Alternatively, he advised the County Health Officer is supposed to be privy to the work of their partners and are under obligation to disclose such information.
LFIC Coordinator Varney Kamara adding his voice to the issue said that the government has been dysfunctional in ensuring the effective implementation of the FOI. is not serious about the institution of the Information Officers. He noted the capacity building effort that Carter Center ATI has over the years done but that has not been buttressed by the government. He referred to the strong worded statement of the Independent Information Commissioner protesting against what could be seen as a weak link in FOI implementation agenda in Liberia
A participant called to attention his experience in filing FOI application to the County Education Officers about the roll of teachers. The Education Officer agreed to provide number not the names of the teachers and the schools.
Atty. Zeon replied that in such a circumstance the applicant should seek redress from the County Superintendent and if the desired information is not provided the complaint must filed to the Independent Information Commissioner.
This point was buttressed by another Participant who said that the established deconcentration platform the Superintendent is custodian of information from all line ministries operating in a county or through the newly established County Service Centers, a one – stop public service and information centers in the counties.
Question was asked about how effective the judiciary is promoting FOI disclosure in Liberia?
Atty. Zeon said there is challenge in that regard and cited two cases that are overdue for hearing in circuit court. One of the cases is between Center for media Studies and Peacebuilding, (CEMESP) and the Liberian Anti Corruption Commission and the other relative to journalist Roland Wowie against Liberia Petroleum Refinery Company. He said they are working with the Independent Information Commission to profile the case and eventually hire a lawyer to initiate a court process in seeking final redress in the matters. This is the only available opportunity for the first FOI a case law precedent in Liberia that would serve as a deterrent for other defaulters in their disclosure obligation.
Can student file FOI request? This question was also posed by a participant.
Atty Zeon said yes and cited the case of students of SOLTIAMON filing a request to know the salary of Inspector General of Police and student in Zwedru who applied for information about the science syllabus for WAEC. He said the application of the Grand Gedeh student showed variance in the notes of the students and what is contained in the science curriculum.
Emphasizing the link between FOI and the decentralization process, Atty. Zeon argued that for CSOs and community radio journalists to do effective advocacy, they must be armed with evidence. He pointed out that this is the best way for CSOs to win respect and when such evidence based reports are released the government and partners are more likely than not going to say ‘we are studying it.’
He alluded to the established decentralization centers as avenues of testing the efficacy of services using the FOI.
He projected the photo of a bridge in Grand Gedeh, Kulah Bypass that cost 66,000 USD which was abandoned for years even when the allocation was made and the community had to file an application to Liberia Agency for Community Empowerment before action could be taken and the bridge is now constructed to ease the discomfort of residents in toting their kids on the shoulders to go to school. This is another importance of the FOI.
Another illustration of how FOI can help change policy was cited in the case of an application by some people to NOCAL about their employment policy. Atty. Zeon even though NOCAL could not provide the requested information they started publishing vacancies in the media; something that cannot be divorced from the said FOI application that was denied.
Somebody asked what should be done with the information obtained in FOI?
Atty. Zeon said that people should act on the information provided in furthering advocacy for positive change in their respective communities.
This led to the issue of the 500,000 dollars contract for the Grand Bassa stadium that has been stalling since 2013 and the output of the of the building very substandard with cracks all over the building and not fit for the intended purpose. It came out from the discussion that there s an outstanding 40% of the contract money that has not been disbursed even as the contractor is wanting for poor quality of work.
Atty. Zeon participants from the Grand Bassa to file FOI request for the contract document to be in position to ascertain the scale of the discrepancy and fraud suspected in the implementation of the stadium contract. He said rushing to court in this case will not yield fruitful outcomes owing to delays that might be encountered in assigning the case for hearing but by gong for the contract document it is possible to find clauses for the resolution of disputes such as what is unfolding. His point was getting the right information is key in advocacy.
Proving the point about weak FOI disclosure in the country, Atty. Zeon projected the Liberia Media Center study of various ministries, department and agencies that have hardly made full disclosure. He encouraged participants not be dispirited by that situation but use it as an inspiration to make further applications using the same measurement.
The issue of security for CSOs and Community radio journalists in FOI was also floated and Atty. Zeon said that the need for coalition building in advocacy is a safeguard mechanism. On Margibi CSO representative especially raised the issue based on his experience where one politician they engaged to make some disclosure started using some of their colleagues to bad mouth him on radio.
LFIC Coordinator Varney Kamara seized the opportunity to state that the essence of the workshop was to ensure that a credible coalition emerges after the training, noting that there is strength and legitimacy in a group advocacy as opposed to one man driving the process that could be undermined and beset with sabotage and challenges.
Day 2 Summary of Presentation
Anderson Meimen of CENTAL made an interactive presentation that sought to connect FOI with accountability, transparency in the continuum of good governance. He said in fighting corruption the concern should not also be about government but something to start from the home, the community and the national scene. He reminded CSOs that they are themselves under obligations to be transparent and accountable, noting that studies have shown how CSOs can distort records to misdirect resources meant for programs and projects that are design for the empowerment of local communities and the country as a whole. He explained the two dimensions of vertical and horizontal accountability. He made mention of legal frameworks that provide basis for fighting corruption include the UN, Africa Union and ECOWAS charters that Liberia has acceded to. He asked participants if they know about the National Anti Corruption Strategy that gave birth to the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission. Only one participant said he had heard about it. He connected the General Audit Commission and Internal Audit systems as accountability and transparency promoting mechanisms whose report should interest all those fighting corruption. He said there is therefore a moral and legal obligation to fight corruption and information is crucial to that effort. He added his voice to the need to go for contract documents, make site visits to be in position to determine the quality of work done, output and outcomes of projects. He said fighting corruption is not a one off event but an ongoing process in consolidating the good governance yearnings of all and sundry. He said besides the Audit report CSOs and journalists must be interested in procurement regulations, Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Public Financial Management, Open Budget, global barometer Indices on health, education etc. He concluded by thanking LFIC and partners for making it possible to have such exchange, adding that for advocacy to have weighty impact the group must work together in networks with credible messengers driving the process.
LFIC Coordinator Varney Kamara buttressed the presentation with the following pointers that: CSOs and community radio journalist be interested in the negotiation of contracts and get involved in the bidding processes to sustain the advocacy; that if CSOs are not accountable they will lose the moral voice to run after those suspected of defrauding public resources and that awareness on FOI is weak which means CSOs must play their part in reaching out to the people about their rights and obligation s under the law.
Question was raised about the legislative project for which three hundred million was reportedly assigned and very little is known about it.
Anderson said that lawmakers are not exempted from for scrutiny under the law but noted that the lawmakers are not actually involved in the implementation of project rather the Liberia Agency for Community Empowerment, (LACE) is. He said if people have an issue with the Legislative project they could approach the Speaker and LACE. He said in any case CSOs concerned about the project must file a request to get the law that created the Legislative Project. A participant from Margibi disclosed that he has approached LACE and they told to come later for the needed information. In Cape Mount it was disclosed that there is controversy among the lawmakers in relation to the legislative projects. A Community radio manager from Bomi County explained how they have been consistently sidelined in allocations from County and Social Development Funds as a strategy to strangulate their advocacy. The same experience was reported from Margibi. Also, participants reported the hand picking of delegates by lawmakers in meetings where resolutions are taken on county and social development funds.
Press Union President K. Abdullah Kamara: buttressed earlier presentations of the FOI law in the area of redress actions when faced with denials. He reminded stakeholders about the media led civic activism that saw the passage of the FOI Act in 2010 and such momentum to have the law implemented must still be of interest to CSOs and media. He said stories published by journalists can be made more exciting and balanced with the use of the FOI law. He reminded journalists to make use of the FOI law to enhance the practice of investigative reporting.
ILAB Technical Staff Xavir George: made a power point presentation that for the first gave a glimpse to stakeholders about the web portal infoliberia.org. He said the effort is laudable for one reason-it makes application for FOI information more transparent by removing the human factor where somebody will argue that ‘I did not receive your written FOI application…’ He expressed regret that since the portal has been set up only they at ILAB have filed requests using the technology. This workshop ensured that some participants made FOI applications as part of effort to get stakeholders become familiar with its usage. He said those thirty two Public Information Officers some ministries, departments and agencies were trained in the use of the facility but this need to be reinforced. Those Public Information Officers trained were provided with tablets customized to the portal. The strong point was made that the impact of the portal cannot be realized without the cooperation of the Public Information Officers in all ministries that must be notified after each application. The FOI application for search to monitor and track sector by sector FOI requests. Xarri George disclosed that it is dismaying that during their awareness raising effort about the portal they realized that many people have still not heard about the FOI law and what it means for transparency and accountability. He concluded by encouraging all to make use of the portal and announced the upcoming open government portal that will help in the proactive disclosure requirement of the law “where people can first check to see if the information they need is not available before filing request using the openlibeia.org portal.
The workshop has ended on positive note and renewed vigor for community and grass root civil society actors. A lot of resources have shared including experiences from the counties. There is now needed to get the participants working on the ground to advance FOI usage in their counties. It means transmitting what has been learnt and testing the system by filing FOI requests or following up on requests they have filed. All of these need to be monitored with time to measure impact. The general impression about the arrangement of the two day workshop and the quality of the content and presentation approach was lauded based on post training evaluation. It is an assurance that LFIC is making effort to take leadership supportive and effective FOI implementation that is needed for the decentralization political new direction that is in the making.