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MRA condemns FG’s threat to jail officials leaking information

By Stanley Onyeka, Lagos and Tochukwu Bliss, Abuja

Media Rights Agenda (MRA), today, described as anachronistic and inimical to transparent and accountable governance a statement credited to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), George Akume, in which he threatened that Government officials who disclose information without authorization would be jailed.

Speaking in Abuja on Tuesday at a workshop organised by the Bureau for Public Service Reforms (BPSR), in collaboration with the Office of the Government of the Federation (OSGF), Mr. Akume said the unauthorised leakage of sensitive official documents constitutes a felony.

He also claimed that there is no defence for such, either in the Constitution or Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

However, MRA in a statement signed by its Deputy Executive Director, Ayode Longe, described as false and illogical the SGF’s accusation that civil society organisations (CSOs) “use the Freedom of Information Act to harass, intimidate and siphon resources from public officers through the dissemination of fake and unfounded information.”

Mr Alonge noted that Mr. Akume’s call for the regulation of CSOs activities on this ground was a red herring designed to divert attention from the Government’s real challenges.

He argued that unless the SGF is saying that when CSOs apply to public institutions for information using the FOI Act, they are given “fake and unfounded information” in response.

He added: “We do not see how his accusation can be remotely true. We also do not see how requesting information under a valid and subsisting Law passed by the National Assembly for that purpose and assented to by the President can amount to harassment, intimidation or siphoning resources from public officers.”

Nothing contained in the Criminal Code or Official Secrets Act shall prejudicially affect any public officer who, without authorisation, discloses to any person, an information which he reasonably believes to show mismanagement, gross waste of funds, fraud, and abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety notwithstanding that such information was not disclosed pursuant to the provision of this Act.

Aversion to transparency and accountability 

MRA further called on Mr. Akume to substantiate his allegation that CSOs are using the FOI Act to harass, intimidate and siphon resources from public officers.

The agency stressed that the SGF’s apparent aversion to transparency and accountability in government should not lead him to mischaracterize the FOI Act or falsely accuse CSOs that have only exercised the right given to them and every other person by the Act.

Mr. Longe continued: “We are disheartened to see on public display such profound ignorance of the FOI Act by a senior official of the Federal Government. We respectfully call on him to make an effort to familiarise himself with the provisions and intent of this piece of legislation in order not to cause further embarrassment to the Government he represents.”

Besides, MRA advised the SGF that he would face an uphill task in attempting to prosecute any government official for unauthorized disclosure of information in the face of Section 27(2) of the FOI Act, which protects whistleblowers.

It quoted: “Nothing contained in the Criminal Code or Official Secrets Act shall prejudicially affect any public officer who, without authorisation, discloses to any person, an information which he reasonably believes to show mismanagement, gross waste of funds, fraud, and abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety notwithstanding that such information was not disclosed pursuant to the provision of this Act.

“No civil or criminal proceeding shall lie against any person receiving the information or further disclosing it.”

It further noted that the SGF’s preoccupation with secrecy rather than good governance was neither helpful to citizens nor to the Government itself.

“Perhaps, if the Government was formulating and implementing policies and actions that are resulting in tangible benefits to citizens, it would not be so concerned about its decisions and actions becoming public knowledge,” it said.

It, therefore, advised the SGF to concentrate his efforts on ensuring that the Government does the right thing rather than things the Government itself appears to be ashamed of, such that it would not be afraid of its decisions and plans being revealed to the public.

MRA also argued that whistleblowers are vital to the integrity and proper functioning of a country’s public institutions.

It said: “The protection of whistleblowers is now a global priority and the SGF would find himself in a face-off not just with Nigerian civil society but also with the international community should he attempt to prosecute any official for disclosing information that reveals corruption, mismanagement of funds, fraud, waste of public resources, abuse of power, or any other wrongdoing.”

The organisation commended those “courageous individuals” in government who have, despite such threats and in the face of great adversity, chosen to speak out against wrongdoing, whether anonymously or publicly, to expose corruption, fraud, abuse of office, and other unethical actions that undermine public trust and confidence in government, describing them as “the unsung heroes of our society.”

“Whistleblowers are driven by a profound sense of duty and a commitment to the greater good. They shine a light in the dark corners of our governments, revealing truths that many officials would prefer to remain hidden.

“Their actions have often led to significant positive changes, including correcting injustices, the implementation of reforms, and safeguarding the public interest,” MRA said.

Rather than threatening whistleblowers with imprisonment to create a climate of fear and discourage others from coming forward, the Government is advised to adopt additional measures and enact laws to ensure adequate protection for them in the light of the immense value that they bring to the society.

This, the agency insisted, is the right thing to do given the essential role they play in combating corruption as well as maintaining accountability and transparency.

SGF threat

Mr Akume at the workshop had relied on Section 97 (2) of the Criminal Code Act of Nigeria, provides: “Any person who, being employed in the public service, without proper authority abstracts, or makes a copy of, any document the property of his employer is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year.”

The SGF, represented by the Permanent Secretary, OSGF, Dr Nnamdi Mbaeri, said unauthorised leakage of sensitive official documents constitute a felony and there is no defence for such either in the Constitution or Freedom of Information Act.

Mr.  Akume recalled that the government had devised measures in the past to contain the leakage of sensitive official information at the MDAs through the issuance of service-wide circulars by the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation in August 2021.

“This was reinforced by the issuance of another service-wide circular in February 2024 on the unauthorised circulation of official documents with information on social media.

“This was done to re-emphasise other extant regulations prohibiting unauthorised disclosure or leakage of official documents.”

Taking a swipe at the CSOs, Mr Akume had said: “There is the need to regulate the activities of the civil society organisations who use the Freedom of Information Act to harass, intimidate and siphon resources from public officers through the dissemination of fake and unfounded information.

“This should be properly addressed by all the practitioners in the communication and related industries.”

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