Confidentiality and Protection of Official Records in the Freedom of Information Era: Nigeria's Situation

Article excerpt

Introduction

Records and information are interdependent concepts. The term 'information' has been defined as "knowledge that is communicated" (International Records Management Trust [IRMT], 1999). On the other hand, an often cited definition of a record provided by the same source is that it is "a document regardless of form or medium created, received, maintained and used by an organisation (public or private) or an individual in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business, of which it forms a part or provides evidence" ((IRMT, 1999). The documents mentioned in this definition clearly contain information; thus, the definition implies that records are recorded information regardless of form or medium. In other words, information becomes a record once it is recorded. Not all pieces of information are in recorded or permanent form (records), and that is why there is oral information, which is ephemeral in nature. Among the essential attributes of records are reliability and trustworthiness, uniqueness and authenticity (Azangweo, 2000). Also of importance in the context of this paper is the concept of 'official record', which is a record generated by an organisation (private or public) in the course of official transactions.

Records and information are indispensable for decision making in all organisations. Records document the activities of an organisation and constitute its collective memory. Subsequently, records facilitate the day-to-day transactions and form a solid base for rational decisions. The main reason for maintaining records is to ensure timely access to information. This paper is focused on official public records and the information they contain, for which the terms "records" or "records and information" will be used interchangeably.

Records and information in the public service of a country are the veritable tools that keep the machinery of government going. The efficacy and efficiency of government, as well as the security of the society which it governs, depend on how well records and information are generated, processed and disseminated. Documentation is important in the public service not only for availability of information for decision making and for supporting activities of the government, but also for accountability and continuity in the transaction of government business. The protection of the physical integrity and informational content of records is, therefore, of paramount importance in records keeping and records management in the public sector.

At the same time, access to the records and the information they contain is a contentious matter in a world "where information is power and where the owners may be extremely wary of permitting the use of such information" (Ford, 2004). In the context of governance, ownership of public sector records resides in society in theory, as the machinery of government is deemed a creation of society itself, working through democratic or other arrangements. In reality however, a government may end up exercising ownership and use rights over public records in the interests of only those in government. It is in this environment of potentially conflicting interests of government, the governed, and society as a whole that regulatory and legal provisions are usually defined or enacted to restrict or facilitate access to public records and information for the public good.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) bill is currently being debated in the Nigerian legislature for the second time, after President Olusegun Obasanjo failed to assent to it as passed before he left office in 2007. Debate is ongoing in the country on the desirability of, and the provisions of the Bill, in the circumstances of the country's socio-political history and level of development. It is in that context that this paper aims to contribute to knowledge and understanding on the issue by comparing the provisions of the existing legislations and regulations in Nigeria with those of the FOI bill, thereby highlighting potential areas of conflicts that should be carefully considered and would need to be managed by all stakeholders of FOI during and after the passage of the bill. …