Getting environmental information in Sierra Leone: Why I support Freedom of Information law
By Ishmael Kindama Dumbuya
Getting the right information is one thing one needs in order to practice as a responsible journalist, but this is something very boring in Sierra Leone. Besides posing as a fake businessman wanting to invest huge sum in the country, it is very tough here to see a government official granting an investigative journalist an interview on public issues. The only main issues and news the Ministers want to hear in their offices is political talk and back-biting news from idle political activists.
I have been trying to get interviews with the Minister of Lands Country Planning and the Environment, Alliue Pat-Sowe, the Deputy Minister 1 for Agriculture Forestry and Food Security, Alie Badara Mansaray Acting as Minister in the absence of Dr. Sam Sesay, and also from the Director of Forestry, Mr. Mansaray.
As required I wrote official letters to all of these three government officials for a twenty minute or less interview on the situation of the Western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve and get to reasons for the massive deforestation of the Forest and the continues encroachment of the Reserve.
It is now over a month when I wrote this letter to the Minister of Lands for this interview. He booked an appointment with me before the past Muslim holiday but anytime you visit his office, it is a hectic day and moment. He turned down the interview and begged me to come at a time he scheduled. Since I want to get the needed information for publication, I continued visiting him again.
On Thursday 17th November I visited the Lands Minister’s office at the 3rd Floor of the Youyi building but I encountered the same fate just like during the previous days. Since he gave me an appointment for 3pm, I went to his office earlier. It was unfortunate that there is no sitting accommodation so I had to stand upright from 3pm to 8pm just to get a twenty minute statement from the Minister.
The only people he admitted inside his office without delay were those from the political angle who visited him to start strategizing for the coming elections. This tells me that every day at Pat-Sowe’s office, all types of chairmen and chairpersons come and disturb potential figures whose main intention of visiting is for official reasons and national development. What normally disturbs investors and some members of the public is the manner in which the Lands Minister gives preferences to special people of his interest.
In all the occasions I have visited the Lands Ministry, Mr. Pat Sowe will only come out and handpick people he wished to see and goes back in.
As if they do not know their duties and responsibilities at the ministry and that of the Ministers, the Personal Secretary of the Lands Minister nearly angered me and other people with unreasonable remarks. The Secretary (known as Kainday) who sits at the right hand of the office when one enters asked “Why must you be panting behind my Minister for this your interview. Why not go to other persons”. I pitied the Secretary because she is quite ignorant about the responsibilities of the Lands Minister as the political head of such a ministry.
Likewise the fate which I suffered at the Lands Ministry, it was also the same at the office of the Deputy Minister of Agriculture who was supposed to step into the shoes of the Minister, Dr. Sam Sesay, when absent. I also wrote a letter to Alie Badara Mansaray and delivered it to his Secretary. As the Secretary handed the letter to him, he quickly replied and granted me a date for the interview on Friday 25th November. To be candid enough, I thought I was not going to waste time at his office as a result of the kind of response I received from him. On the scheduled date, I arrived for the planned interview; I sat from 3pm to 7pm without the Deputy Minister calling me inside. Another elderly man was at the reception with me waiting for official business at the office of Mr. Alie Badara Mansaray. He left before me after sitting for a very long time. What baffled us outside is that no one was inside the Deputy Minister’s office. He was sitting there alone and only conversed with the Officials of the Ministry who entered the office.
The Director of Forestry, Mr. Mansaray, has also been dodging my interviews. Anytime I call him, he will give excuses on the pretext of illness and about needing a rest. Sorry to say however that if the Director of Forestry cannot grant an interview on the forest situation in the Peninsular Forest then I wonder who will; or is it that these officials and Ministers who are supposed to be on top of their jobs are mere illiterates in their fields or what? Shamefully enough, he took the questions I wanted him to comment on to the Western Area Peninsular Forest Reserve (WAPFOR) Project Administrators at Wilberforce to help him answer the questions since they are dealing with the forests – what a pity for the sanity of this nation’s management and administration.
However, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and partners are battling with the government for the passing of the Freedom of Information Act. It is believed that if such a law is passed into law in the country, it will help journalists to get information from these politicians, which to all intents and purposes is the right of every citizen in the land which Government and Public Officials must adhere and respond to as public servants.
There is certainly the need to come together and campaign for the FOI Bill to be passed into law in Sierra Leone so that journalists can continue to practice responsible journalism.