By Moussa Ngom
The title of his article: “Obstacle course for information”. Originally, journalist Pie Delores Nesmon wanted to work on managing a grant fund for households affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, but her article ultimately tells the long story of a difficult quest for answers from the public authority responsible for distributing subsidies.
“After a long silence on the part of these institutions, I seized the Commission for Access to Information of Public Interest and to Public Documents (CAIDP). Thanks to her help, I was able to have access to these ministries. Even though the physical interview was refused to me, I was finally able to send in a questionnaire and I got answers,” says Nesmon.
The CAIDP has existed since the adoption of the Ivorian access to information law in 2013. At the time, only 11 African countries had access to information law, of which only two were in South Africa. Since then, around ten countries in the region have adopted such a system, following in the footsteps of Côte d’Ivoire.
While Ivorian law conferred on the citizen “no right to claim the communication of a public document”, now any person who wishes to access information and public documents “submits a written request to the organisation concerned in which he declines his identity and its quality.“ says Souleymane Bamba, Director of Legal Affairs and Litigation of the CAIDP.
An essential detail because the law gives greater importance to requests from journalists in terms of response time.
“Requests from researchers and professional journalists are processed within fifteen days, compared to 30 days for ordinary citizens,” explains the legal director of the CAIDP.
The commission has the power to impose “fines or penalties” but the commission prefers not to resort to sanctions. Bamba explains that she preferred “to favour an educational method which consists, in cases where the public bodies in question have not been trained in the legal provisions relating to access to information, in explaining to them what device by reminding them of the obligations that the law imposes on them.” “In almost all of the cases we have received, the public bodies have complied,” says the legal director.
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But despite the great ambition of the law, some journalists interviewed do not yet seem completely convinced. The law has already been unuseful to her in the past, says Nesmon. She complains that certain public bodies are sometimes reluctant to provide journalists with the information necessary for them to carry out their work:
“The institution may as of right refuse to provide the information on the grounds that this information would be classified as top secret. This shows a limit of this law since any institution could take advantage of secrecy to refuse to make certain information available to the journalist.”
Noel Konan, an investigative journalist, complains about the inefficiency of “information officers” within public bodies who are responsible for collecting and doing due diligence with officials so that information is available to the applicant.
“Some administrations do not yet have it,” according to Konan, and “even where it exists they have a related competence when we go to ask for information, the person in charge cannot on his own initiative make this information available. He has to refer to your hierarchy first and imagine what that creates in terms of administrative heaviness, no speed.”
But the legal director of the CAIDP reassures by explaining that civil servants are often torn between their obligation of professional reserve and the needs of information to the public: “We, therefore, see that the official is caught between two texts and the mission of the CAIDP consists precisely in removing these ambiguities.”
Bamba, who deplores the lack of precision in journalists’ requests, is also sorry that journalists only use the law on access to information in “an episodical way”, which is why a CAIDP Prize has since been created that rewards journalists every September 28, on the occasion of the International Day for Universal Access to Information.
But another challenge identified by Konan: a delay in the development of open data in order to overcome the requests for information. “Many administrations have a website but they do not provide any information there,” complains the investigative journalist. A request taken into account by the commission which, since 2020, instituted a CAIDP award for Best Public Body for Access to Information to recognise bodies that have stood out for the “quantity and relevance” of content posted on their website. The commission hopes it can also count on the awareness-raising actions of the network of Ivorian journalists dedicated to access to information.
Reporting for this story was supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab Africa.