FOI Requests Face Non-Compliance—Media Center Alarms

The Liberia Media Center (LMC) has released a full listing of ministries and agencies outlining their attitudes towards information disclosure about projects they were supposed to implement for the 2012/2013 budget circle.

The listing, broken down into three main categories to include ‘Absolute Non-Complaint,’ ‘Partial Non-Complaint’ and ‘Compliant’ ministries and agencies, is one of LMC’s latest statement about its experiences during almost a year of Public Sector Investment Projects (PSIP) monitoring.

Absolute Non-Complaint ministries and agencies are those that refused project inquiry, failed to provide information and proof-documentaries – whether voluntarily or requested for.

The LMC categorized eight ministries and agencies as absolute non-compliant including the ministries of Justice, Agriculture, State for Presidential Affairs and Foreign Affairs.

Also in this category are the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC), John F. Kennedy Medical Center (JFK), Office of the Vice President and the Independent Human Rights Commission.

“In consonance with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Law, the LMC wrote two separate information requests on January 17 and May 7, 2013 respectively for project status reports. The May 7, 2013 FOI request was meant to remind these M&As that they were reneging to respond to the previous FOI requests and to reinforce its request for projects information.

“Also on May 3, 2013, the LMC wrote official communications to these M&A not only requesting for information, but also for interview audience with the LMC. These communications were enveloped along with questionnaires developed for their respective projects under the PSIP. Up to present, these agencies are yet to respond to our information requests.

“What is even worrisome is that apart from the above channels of communication, the LMC wrote direct electronic mails, containing request for information and questionnaires to the attention of these agencies through their closest staff, like Public Affairs, Communications and/or Information officer,” the LMC said over the weekend.

For example, according to the LMC, because it could not get the Ministry of States for Presidential Affairs after previous communications on January 13 and May 7, 2013, to respond to its FOI requests, it sent direct emails to Minister McClain requesting project information.

This was also pursued in futility through direct email communications to the Press Secretary to the President, Jerolinmek M. Piah and Director of Communication at the Ministry of States, Mary Brownelle, the LMC said.

It narrated the same story about the ministry of Justice, where authorities refused to provide project information on grounds of not receiving official communication.

LMC: “This was untrue. The LMC feels this act was unjustified because we had sent several communications. In fact, Mr. Edward Dillon, Special Assistant to Min. Christiana P. Tarr, insinuated to the LMC that the FOI communication might have gotten missing during the ministry’s dislocation from Ashmun Street to Sinkor. The LMC did not only resend the communication, it also sent it with questions, through Mr. Dillon, who works directly in the office of the Minister. The LMC is yet to receive any information on any of the projects implemented by the Justice Ministry,” a release issued yesterday said.

In the case of the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC), the LMC said it’s Legal Counsel, Atty. Samuel Pearson, confirmed receiving the FOI communications but deliberately refused to provide information because, according to Atty. Pearson, ‘MCC’s receptionist did not sign on the letter to confirm receipt,’ though he held the letter on his desk.

In the ‘partial compliant’ category, the LMC said eleven (11) entities, to some level, provided information but could not and/or deliberately failed and refused to provide documentary proofs to their claim of projects implementation.

This category includes the Ministry of National Defense (MoD), Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), Center for National Documents, Governance Commission, National Housing Authority, Liberia Institute of Statistics & Geo Information Services (LISGIS), Ministry of Lands, Mines & Energy, National Investment Commission (NIC) and the Law Reform Commission (LRC).

LMC: “Example of such partial-compliance is from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission. The LACC responded to the LMC’s FOI request but with scanty details and documentary proofs surrounding its project implementation. A return communication was sent to the LACC through Mr. Ben Kolako, Public Affairs Officer, but up to date, the LACC is yet to provide clearer information and documentary evidence. This was followed by series of emails communications and phone calls to Mr. Kolako. He is yet to provide the needed information. He also declined to give information to journalists that spoke on him on the matter.”

“Apart from the January 13 and May 8, 2013 official communications to the National Housing Authority, the LMC sent an email communication (accompanied by questionnaire) to Managing Director Samuel W. Thompson in May while he was in the US. In Monrovia, the LMC met with Mr. Thompson along with his Deputy for Administration, Atty. Samuel Kpaklein and Comptroller, Herman H. Jones. During this meeting, apart from photo of houses in Brewerville, the three top officials refused to provide the LMC with documentary evidence of spending on its Mataldi land acquisition project and requested the LMC to ask the Ministry of Finance of documentary proof,” the LMC release noted.

Of the 64 PSIP implementing ministries and agencies, the LMC categorize twenty four (24) ministries and agencies as being compliant with information disclosure.

“Not only were they compliant in providing information, they also tried to provide documentary evidence of the projects they implemented. These documentary evidence include newspaper reports, workshop or seminar brochures, summary reports, Photostat of official communications.
“Some complaint-M&As, at the request of the LMC, allowed project site visitation for independent verification of project implementation. The LMC in this regard gives credence to the ministries of Finance, Information, Cultural Affairs & Tourism, Post & Telecommunications, Agricultural and Industrial Training Bureau and the Forestry Training Institute, among others.

“The LMC verified some of these projects without necessarily requesting the implementing agencies for permission to conduct independent verification. Examples of such are the Monrovia Consolidated School System, University of Liberia,” the Center indicated, though it says information and evidence gathering is still ongoing.

PSIPs are the fulcrum of the Liberian government’s multi-year budgeting template, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and are intended to increase investment spending on activities that would accelerate growth, sustain development impact and create new jobs.

Ensuring that these projects are implemented on schedule and delivering the intended results required an independent system of verification, supported by robust data mining and information sharing platform. It is on this basis that the LMC has been monitoring the performance of ministries and agencies implementing PSIPs.

While the LMC’s primary focus has been to monitor the implementation of these projects alongside spending discipline, information disclosure by public officials, in conformity with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Law, was also an important test and experience for it.

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Author: D K Sengbeh

Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh (author of Sengbeh's Weblog) is a respected and renowned Liberian journalist, poet and writer with with journalism experience since 2001, of working both as a mainstream journalist and a communication/media consultant in Liberia. He is Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia (elected Dec 2013). He was Assistant Secretary General of the Union Dec 2011 to Dec 2013. He is also Editor-In-Chief of The Informer Newspaper—one of Liberia’s credible dailies. Before joining the Informer, Danicius had served as reporter, chief reporter, sub-editor and News Editor at The Independent Newspaper between 2002 and 2006. Before then, he was reporter at the defunct Patriot Newspaper and Kiss FM 2001-2002. Danicius is a UN Media Fellow and Liberia’s first UN Medal Award-winning journalist for his contribution to journalism and for being the second Liberian journalist in 15 years to qualify for and successfully attended the United Nations’ Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalist Fellowship Program in New York and Geneva, Switzerland in 2012. He earned a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Mass Communication and Sociology from the University of Liberia and a Diploma in Journalism from the International School of Journalism. He holds several awards and recognitions both in and outside of journalism, and carries dozens of certificates in journalism and communication from studies in Ghana, China, United States and Switzerland, among others. He volunteers as Chair of the Information and Communication Committee of his local Bardnersville community. He can be quickly reached via (+231) 886586531/777586531/777464018/ dakasen1978@yahoo.com

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