Lagos, Tuesday, July 4, 2017: Media Rights Agenda (MRA) yesterday in Lagos launched the “FOI Hall of Shame” aimed at focusing attention on public officials and institutions undermining the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, 2011 through their actions, decisions or utterances and named Justice Doris Okuwobi of the Ikeja High Court as the first inductee.
Announcing the initiative in Lagos, MRA’s Executive Director, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, said: “six years after the Act was enacted into Law, it has become clear that there is a concerted effort by some public officials and institutions, cutting across all arms and all levels of government, to ensure that it does not work and that it does not achieve its objectives. We intend to call them out in the court of public opinion.”
According to him, “every week, MRA will induct into the FOI Hall of Shame a public institution or public official who, by its, his or her action or inaction, decision, utterance or in any other way is undermining or has undermined the effective implementation of the FOI Act and we will provide ample justification for our decision regarding such an institution or official.”
Explaining the choice of Justice Okuwobi as the first inductee into the FOI Hall of Shame, Mr. Ojo said her ruling on an FOI suit on June 19, 2017 is “one of the most ridiculous decisions ever given by a court anywhere in the world”, adding that the implication of the ruling is that if a public institution ignores a freedom of information request by failing to respond to it, it can never be sued, despite the clear provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to the contrary.
He recounted as follows:
On November 4, 2016, MRA made a freedom of information request to the Ojodu Local Council Development Area, by a letter with the subject: “Request for Records of Water Works Plans for Araromi Zion Estate”. MRA asked the Council to provide it with relevant information about the provision of government services to a community in Ikeja, in the heart of Lagos, completely neglected by the government and which enjoys no government service of any description. The Council ignored the FOI request.
On December 6, 2016, MRA filed an application at the Ikeja Judicial Division of the Lagos State High Court seeking leave to compel the Council to comply with the provisions of the FOI Act and provide MRA with the information requested.
The first outrage, as far as the Judiciary’s involvement in this is concerned, is that although the FOI Act requires courts to deal with such matters speedily, it took the court more than seven months just to list and hear a simple motion exparte for leave.
When Justice Okuwobi finally heard the application for leave on June 19, 2017, in the face of the complaint and prayer for a declaration that the failure and/or refusal by the Council to give MRA a written notice that access to all or part of the information requested will not be granted was a violation of the FOI Act, the judge held that MRA’s failure to show evidence of a written notice by the Council denying it access to the information was fatal to its case.
It is also a matter of serious concern that although the FOI Act gives public institutions seven days within which to respond to a request for information and states clearly that where the institution fails to give access to the information or record applied for within this time limit, the institution is deemed to have refused to give access, Justice Okuwobi ruled: “I will not speculate on the fact that there was a denial by the Respondent’s failure to comply.”
Finally, although the FOI Act gives public institutions seven days to provide the information requested and requires an applicant who has been denied access to information to approach the Court within 30 days after the public institution denied or is deemed to have denied access to the information, Justice Okuwobi held, more than seven months after MRA made its request for the information, that the application to the court was “premature” because the Council had not given MRA a written notice that it would not grant access.
In effect, the judge used the Council’s disregard of its duties and obligations under the FOI Act, against MRA, the victim, which had come before the court for redress.
Mr. Ojo said: “It beats the imagination that a judge will condone and actively encourage such an act of impunity by making it impossible for those whose rights are so flagrantly and wantonly violated to approach the courts to vindicate their rights. The Judgement does not only constitute a deadly impediment to the effectiveness of the FOI Act, it also brings the Judiciary to disrepute and diminishes citizens’ confidence in it.”
It is on the basis of the foregoing, Mr Ojo submits, that on Monday, July 3, 2017, MRA inducted Justice Doris Okuwobi of the Ikeja High Court into the FOI Hall of Shame.