September 30, 2013, 1:17 pm
By Laura Neuman
Laura Neuman is manager of the Global Access to Information Initiative at The Carter Center.
In celebration of International Right to Know Day on Sept. 28, 2013, The Carter Center and local partners in Liberia hosted a series of activities to raise awareness of the value of freedom of information and to encourage the use and full implementation of the country’s 2010 Freedom of Information Act.
The Carter Center and local partners in Liberia celebrate International Right to Know Day in Buchanan, Liberia, on Sept. 28, 2013. (Video: The Carter Center/M. Darrough)
Freedom of information is a fundamental human right. It allows people to more fully participate in public life, have a voice in setting government priorities, fight corruption, and hold governments accountable. It also helps to make governments more efficient and effective.
The week of celebratory events began with the training of newly appointed information officers, including a special session led by Melanie Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Next, the University of Liberia screened the movie “Erin Brockovich” — a film about an American legal clerk who uncovers critical information which helps her win a case against a company accused of contaminating a local water supply. A panel discussion followed the screening, including Ms. Pustay, Deputy Information Minister Norris Tweah, Information Commissioner Mark Freeman, Former Information Minister Laurence Bropleh, and Green Advocates Director Alfred Brownell.
On Thursday evening, a private reception was held in Monrovia for the opening of Exhibition in the Archives: A Walk through Liberia’s Documented History from Pre-Colonization to Present Day. The exhibit, funded by USAID and Open Society Institute West Africa, is a collaboration between the Center for National Documents and Records Agency and The Carter Center. It aims to highlight the value of freedom of information and records management to preserve history and influence the future. The exhibit gives Liberians, for the first time, the opportunity to view their country’s newly rediscovered, original Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Howard Payne, National Archives volunteer and founder of the nonprofit Research and Resource Center, looks at Liberia’s handwritten Declaration of Independence for the first time. He later discussed the importance of bringing information to the Liberian people: “This is a day I’ve been waiting for – it’s very important as a young Liberian man. If we take information to the Liberian people, especially emerging generations, I think better things will be done through our national government. If the citizens are well-informed, they become participants in decision-making.” (Photo: The Carter Center/M. Darrough)
Laura Neuman, Carter Center’s Global Access to Information manager, speaks to the audience at the National Archives about the creation of the exhibit: “We worked to support the passage of what is one of the stronger access to information laws in the world, and really the first comprehensive law in West Africa. I was here meeting with colleagues when Director General Bloy Sayeh whispered in my ear, ‘I need to tell you something. We just found our original constitution and declaration of independence from 1847.’ And it gave me chills. We asked ourselves, can we possibly make this the cornerstone of this exhibit? For us, this really represents the value of freedom of information. Records, documents are the backbone of freedom of information, and if you don’t have them, then what are people really requesting?” (Photo: The Carter Center/M. Darrough)
Events then moved to Buchanan, beginning with a debate among local university students regarding whether freedom of information challenges government. After the debate, government and civil society freedom of information champions played a friendly soccer match with players donning 2013 International Right to Know Day tee-shirts imprinted with the national slogan: “Tell it, show it, let’s know it!” Off the field, the players met to discuss obstacles and potential solutions for advancing the right of access to information in Liberia.
On International Right to Know Day itself, Sept. 28, a marching band led a parade of hundreds through the streets of Buchanan in celebration of Liberia’s right of access to information. The march culminated at the fairgrounds for an indoor program with speakers from government and civil society who celebrated the recent successes and shared challenges and next steps for assuring vibrant freedom of information in Liberia.
The Carter Center; the Liberian Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism; the Independent Information Commissioner; the Center for National Archives and Documents Agency; the Liberian Freedom of Information Coalition; and seven county freedom of information networks joined together to hold these events.
Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church High School debate team, who took on the challenge of arguing that freedom of information presents too many challenges to be successfully implemented, prepare their rebuttal. The debate was organized as part of the activities surrounding International Right to Know Day in Buchanan, Liberia, on Sept. 28, 2013. (Photo: The Carter Center/M. Darrough)
A Grand Bassa High School team member argues that freedom of information efforts benefit the government while the Seventh-day Adventist High School team (in pink) argues that freedom of information challenges government. Grand Bassa was announced as the winner of the debate on Sept. 28 during the main International Right to Know Day program in Buchanan. Events were coordinated in collaboration with local Grand Bassa County Freedom of Information Network which is directly supported by The Carter Center. (Photo: The Carter Center/K. Mackey)
Participants take part in a parade celebrating International Right to Know Day that progressed through the major port town of Buchanan, Liberia, on Sept. 28, 2013. (Photo: The Carter Center/M. Darrough)