Court Upbraids Sports Ministry for Breaching FOI Act, Orders it to Pay Journalist N1 Million for Wrongfully Denying her Information

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Ms Godsgift Onyedinefu

A Federal High Court in Abuja has upbraided the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development for breaching obligations legally imposed on it by the Freedom of Information Act and ordered it to pay an Abuja-based journalist, Ms Godsgift Onyedinefu, N1 million as damages following its failure to provide her with the information she requested in 2019 on the cost of Nigeria’s participation in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Delivering judgment in the suit filed by the journalist against the ministry, Justice Donatus Uwaezuoke Okorowo held that the refusal of the ministry to provide the journalist with the information “constitutes a disregard of existing laws and as such amounts to a breach of legally imposed obligations under the Act.”

He ruled that the ministry’s action was an unlawful violation of Ms Onyedinefu’s right of access to information and directed it to make available to the journalist 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 Youth and Sports Development, the Minister of Youth and Sports Development, and the Attorney-General of the Federation.

Ms Onyedinefu sought from the court an order directing 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 prayed the court for:

  • A declaration that she is entitled to receive from the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, and the Minister of Youth and Sports Development the information she requested, having made a written application on June 3, 2019, which the Ministry of Finance received on June 11, 2019;
  • A declaration that the failure, neglect and/or refusal of the ministry and the minister 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 ministry and the minister 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 ministry and the minister 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 its Minister claimed that the matter was undergoing investigation by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and that the release of the information requested by the journalist would be prejudicial to the ongoing investigation by the security agencies.

They contended that they had a right to deny any application for information under those circumstances and that they acted within the law when they denied Ms Onyedinefu’s request for the information.

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 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 letter from the EFCC to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Youth and Sport Development forwarding a petition for investigation and that while that letter was written on June 6, 2018 and received on June 11, 2018, Ms Onyedinefu’s letter requesting information under the FOI Act was written on June 3, 2019 and received by the Ministry on June 11, 2019, and that her suit was subsequently filed on July 26, 2019.

According to him, from the averments in Ms Onyedinefu’s counter-affidavit, it is apparent that the reasons given by the ministry and the minister for their denial of her request for access to information are not plausible because the investigation which was 12 months prior to the journalist’s request for information could not have been good enough reason at the time of her request.

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 said Section 20 of the FOI Act gives the right to Ms Onyedinefu to apply to the court after a wrongful denial of information and also gives the court the authority to review the violation of the provisions of the Act by the ministry and the minister.

Justice Okorowo 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.

He said Ms Onyedinefu’s averments in her affidavit in support of the suit clearly show that she requested the ministry and the minister to perform their public duty but that they willfully failed to perform the duty and thereby violated the provisions of the Act.

The judge ruled that the failure of the ministry and the minster 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.