Court Orders Finance Ministry to Pay Journalist N1 Million for Wrongful Denial of Information

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Ms Godsgift Onyedinefu,

A Federal High Court in Abuja has ruled that the refusal of the Federal Ministry of Finance to provide an Abuja-based journalist, Ms Godsgift Onyedinefu, with the information she requested in 2019 on the cost of Nigeria’s participation in the 2018 World Cup amounted to an unlawful violation of her right of access to information and ordered the ministry and its minster to pay her N1 million as damages.

Delivering judgment in the suit filed by the journalist against the ministry, Justice Donatus Uwaezuoke Okorowo directed it to make available to Ms Onyedinefu all the information she applied for by her letter dated June 3, 2019 not later than seven days from the court’s judgment and pay her N1 million as exemplary and aggravated damages for the unlawful violation of her right of access to information through the wrongful denial of the information to her in breach of Section 7 (4) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, 2011.

In the suit filed on her behalf on July 26, 2019 through an Originating Summons, by Lagos-based lawyer and member of Media Rights Agenda’s Network of FOI Lawyers, Mr. Charles Musa, the journalist named as defendants the Federal Ministry of Finance, the Minister of Finance and the Attorney-General of the Federation.

Ms Onyedinefu asked the court to direct the ministry and its minister to make available to her within seven days of the court’s judgment, the information she requested from them pursuant to the FOI Act, among other things, on the total cost of Nigeria’s participation in the 2018 World Cup and whether budgetary allocation was approved for it in the 2018 Appropriation Act of the Federal Government.

Specifically, she asked the court for:

  • A declaration that she is entitled to receive from the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Minister of Finance the information she requested, having made a written application on June 3, 2019, which the Ministry of Finance received on June 27, 2019;
  • A declaration that the failure, neglect and/or refusal of the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Minister of Finance to make available to her the information she requested through her letter to them is wrongful, unlawful and amounts to a gross violation of her right of access to information established and guaranteed by Sections 1(1) and 4 of the FOI Act;
  • A declaration that the failure and/or refusal by the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Minister of Finance to make the information available to her amounts to wrongful denial of access to information under section 7(5) of the Act and that their failure and/or refusal to give her a written notice stating the reason for the denial of the information she requested is wrongful, unlawful and constitutes a gross violation of section 4 (b) of the Act.
  • An order directing the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Minister of Finance to make the information she requested available to her not later than seven days from the court’s judgment.
  • An order compelling the Attorney-General of the Federation to initiate criminal proceedings against the ministry and its minister for, among other things, the offence of wrongful denial of access to information under Section 7(5) of the FOI Act;
  • The sum of N1 million against the ministry as exemplary and aggravated damages for the unlawful violation of her right of access to information established and guaranteed by Sections 1(1) and of the Act and wrongful denial of access to information under Section 7 (4) of the Act.

In their defence, the Ministry and the Finance Minister claimed that they did not receive Ms Onyedinefu’s letter requesting information under the FOI Act and that the letter was never found in their office, saying that it was difficult for them to confirm the authenticity of the acknowledged copy of the letter tendered by the journalist.

They also contended that the information requested by Ms Onyedinefu is exempted from the operation of the FOI Act and that they are not under an obligation to provide such information, which they claimed are public material and publicly available for purchase and therefore exempted under Section 26 of the Act.

In his judgment, Justice Okorowo upheld the objection raised by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), to his inclusion in the suit as a defendant saying his power to initiate criminal proceedings by virtue of Section 174 of the Constitution is not questionable or subject to any control.

Observing that the courts do not question the exercise of the powers of the Attorney-General, he ruled that both constitutionally and under common law, the court cannot grant Ms Onyedinefu’s request to compel the Attorney-General to initiate criminal proceedings against any party before it as the court cannot control his constitutional powers. He therefore, declined the request and struck out the name of the Attorney-General of the Federation from the suit.

The judge however held that Ms Onyedinefu was entitled to the information she requested from the Federal Ministry of Finance by virtue of the provisions of the FOI Act, saying “I agree with the plaintiff submission that the fulcrum of democratic government is accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that people should have information so as to be in a position to fulfill the role which democracy assigns to them and make democracy a really effective participatory democracy and FOIA is a protocol for achieving this basic principle of democracy by providing citizens right to know the facts, the true facts, about the administration of the country.”

He observed that he had seen the copy of Ms Onyedinefu’s letter acknowledged in the office of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance on June 27, 2019 when it was received by the ministry.

Noting that the information requested by the journalist was not provided within the statutory time, including the extension until she filed her suit, the judge held that from the averments in the affidavits of the parties, it is apparent that the reasons given by the ministry and the minister for the denial of access to the information requested by Ms Onyedinefu were not plausible.

According to him, this is because the journalist’s request is not limited to budget allocation only, which is presumed to be published as gazette but extends to returns made on expenditure of public funds consequent on Nigeria’s participation in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Justice Okorowo noted that as submitted by Ms Onyedinefu’s lawyer, the FOI Act was designed to make public institutions more accountable, and to enable members of the public demand and obtain information on the activities of public institutions, especially those who use public funds and tax payers’ money in their activities, adding that “It is to improve transparency and accountability in public institutions and enhance good governance.”

He held that the ministry and the minister have a public duty to comply with the provisions of the FOI Act by providing information when requested or in case of denial, to give written notice of denial of such information and the provision of the Act under which it relies to deny the requested information.

The judge ruled that the failure of the ministry and the minister to issue Ms Onyedinefu a written notice of denial and to provide the section under which it relies is a violation of the provisions of the Act.

He upheld her claim that the ministry was in clear breach of the provision of the FOI Act by its failure to provide her with the information she requested, saying its denial of her request for the information was wrongful.

Justice Okorowo therefore granted all the prayers sought by Ms Onyedinefu, except the request to compel the Attorney-General of the Federation to initiate criminal proceedings against the ministry and its minister.