Court Sets April 29 for Judgment in MRA’s Suit Over Scope of Independence Reportedly Granted NBC

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Mr. Bula Kelle, MRA’s Counsel

A Federal High Court in Abuja presided over by Justice Nkeonye Evelyn Maha has fixed April 29, 2024 for judgment in a Freedom of Information (FOI) suit filed by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) against the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) over the Commission’s failure to grant the organization’s requests for information on the scope of independence reportedly granted to it by former President Muhammadu Buhari.

The legal action was initiated following a statement by the then NBC Director General, Malam Balarabe Shehu Ilelah, during a media briefing in Abuja on February 9, 2023. In the statement, he said that the President had authorized the Commission’s autonomy, safeguarding it from political interference in its regulatory responsibilities, specifically in the issuance and revocation of broadcasting licenses. Responding to this announcement, MRA submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Commission on February 20, 2023, in accordance to the provisions outlined in the FOI Act, 2011.

In the suit filed on behalf of MRA by Mr. Bula Kelle against the NBC and the Attorney-General of the Federation, MRA asked the Court to declare the NBC’s failure to provide it with the information it requested by a letter dated February 20, 2023, a breach of its right of access to information as well as a flagrant violation of the FOI Act and to order the Commission to pay it ₦1 million as exemplary and aggravated damages for unlawfully denying it the information.

Specifically, MRA sought the following reliefs:
• A declaration that the failure and/or refusal by the NBC to grant access or make available to MRA, the information requested by MRA in a letter dated February 20, 2023, constitutes a violation of MRA’s rights of access to information established and guaranteed by Section 1(1), 4 (a & b), of the FOI Act, 2011.
• A declaration that the failure and/or refusal by the NBC to give MRA a written notice that access to all or part of the information requested would not be granted and stating reasons for the denial and the section of the FOI Act upon which the NBC relied to deny MRA access to the information requested by MRA in its letter dated February 20, 2023 amounts to a flagrant violation of Section 4 (b), 7 (1), (2) and 3 of the FOI Act, 2011.
• An order compelling the NBC to grant access to or make available to MRA information requested in the MRA’s letter dated February 20, 2023 which was duly delivered to the NBC namely:
a. Has the power of the Minister of Information under Section 6 of the NBC Act to give the Commission directives with regards to the exercise by the commission of its functions been abolished? If so, are there plans to amend Section 6 of the Act accordingly?
b. Is the NBC now the final authority responsible for the issuance of broadcast licences as against the extant practice under Section 2(b) of the NBC Act which requires the Commission to merely recommend applications through the Minister of Information to the President for the grant of radio and television licences? If the NBC is now vested with final authority to issue radio and television licences, are there plans to amend Section 2(b) of the NBC Act accordingly?
c. What other issues regarding the Commission’s independent have been affected by the President’s approval and what other provisions of the NBC Act are being considered for amendment accordingly?
d. Request to provide MRA with a copy of the communication from the President through which the approval of the independence of the NBC was conveyed to the Commission.
• An order directing the NBC to pay to MRA the sum of ₦1,000.000.00 (One Million Naira) only on the footing of exemplary and aggravated damages for the flagrant and unlawful violation of MRA’s right of access to Information established and guaranteed by Section 1(1) and 4 of the FOI Act, 2011.
• An order directing the Attorney-General of the Federation the Attorney to initiate criminal proceedings against the NBC for the offence of wrongful denial of access to information under Section 7 (5) of the FOI Act.

Mr. Kelle in his written address argued that the NBC failed to fulfill its obligation to furnish the requested information within the specified timeframe, thereby infringing upon the MRA’s rights as outlined in the FOI Act. The Act explicitly grants individuals, irrespective of specific interests, the right to access information held by public officials or institutions. Additionally, the Act allows for legal recourse, empowering applicants to approach the court for judicial review if their information requests are denied or not adequately addressed.

He further underscores MRA’s legal standing by referencing Section 31 of the FOI Act, which defines “person” to include both corporate bodies and unincorporated entities. Even if the applicant were not considered a corporate body, the Act still permits it to request information and seek judicial review of decisions made under its provisions.

Mr. Kelle contended that the NBC’s failure to provide the requested information within the stipulated timeframe, as mandated by Section 4 of the Act, constitutes a violation of MRA’s right to access information.

Mr. Kelle asserted that the court has a duty to enforce the mandatory provisions of the law by his presentation of a thorough case with reference to the relevant sections of the FOI Act.

Justice Nkeonye Evelyn Maha deferred judgment until April 29, 2024, after Mr. Kelle, the NBC, represented by Olanrewaju Osinnaike, Esq, and the Attorney General of the Federation represented by Aliyu Abdulkadir, adopted their respective written addresses in the matter at the hearing of MRA’s substantive Motion on Notice on February 12, 2024.