Meaning and Introduction
The Freedom of Information Act, as the name implies, is an Act of the National Assembly enacted in 2011 which possesses the aim of granting individuals the right to seek certain information from government agencies and public offices without fear of harassment or rejection.
The Act bestows on everyone regardless of tribe, age or gender, a right of access to information sought irrespective of the form in which such information or records are kept. By virtue of Section 1(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, a person is empowered to access or request information from any government agency or public institution whether or not such application is contained in any written form; hence an applicant can tender a written application or make same orally. Interestingly, sub-section (2) further provides that such applicant need not reserve any personal interest whatsoever in the information being sought. In other words, an applicant can request for information that is or are not their business.
Time for Granting or Refusing Application
By the provisions of Section 4 of the Act, information requested for must be made available to the applicant within 7 days after such application. However, where the government agency or institution considers that such application should be denied, such denial must be conveyed to the applicant via a written notice, stating the reason(s) for the denial, as well as the section of the Act supporting such denial.
What happens when an applicant’s right to information is infringed?
Enforcement of Applicant’s Right.
In Section 1(3) FoI Act, the law crowns an Applicant with the right to institute proceedings in a Court to compel any public institution to comply with the provisions of the Act.
By the provisions of Section 7 (1)&(2) more so, where access to information is refused, the government agency or public institution is mandated to state on the notice given to the applicant the grounds for the refusal as well as the specific provision of the Act that supports such refusal. The names, designation and signature of each person responsible for such denial shall also be included in the notice.
It will interest you to know that once a case of wrongful denial of access is established in Court, the defaulting officer or institute shall on conviction be liable to a fine of N500,000.00 (Five hundred thousand naira only)- S. 7 (5).
In order to checkmate frivolous institution of proceedings in court (unnecessarily taking a government agency or public institution to court), the various Court Rules and Practice Directions of Court usually provide for the dismissal of such claims with punitive costs upon the Claimant/Applicant.
Procedure for Enforcement.
Section 20 of the Act empowers an Applicant who has been denied access to information to apply to the Court for a review of the matter within 30 (thirty) days after the denial, or within such further time as the Court may grant either before or after the expiration of the 30 days.
In Section 21, the Act provides that such application shall be heard and determined summarily, i.e, without religiously observing the usual rigorous processes involved in litigation.
By the provisions of Section 24, the burden of proof relies on the public institution or government agency to establish that it holds such authority to deny an application for information.
Noteworthy, where the FoI Act is in conflict with any other Act or Law, the provisions of the FoI Act will prevail.
Certain class(es) of information are by law not made available for public consumption. The categories are those enumerated in Sections 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 26 of the Act. They include:
1. Information which may be injurious to the conduct of international affairs and the defence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
2. Information that could reasonably be expected to facilitate the commission of an offence.
3. Information that contains personal data, which can be disclosed if the individual to who it relates consents to the disclosure, or where the information is publicly available.
4. Information that contains trade secrets and commercial or financial data, or where disclosure of such trade secrets or information may harm the interest of the third party, or interfere with contractual or other negotiations of a third party.
5. Information that is subject to: legal practitioner-client privileges; health workers-patient privileges, journalism confidentiality privileges; and any other professional privileges conferred by the Act.
6. Information which contains course materials or research materials prepared by faculty members.
7. Information pertaining to exam questions, scoring modes and other examination data used to administer academic examination or determine qualifications for employment; etc.
(Kindly peruse the above given Sections of the FoI Act for an extensive perception and understanding?
Notwithstanding the above exemptions, where the public interest outweighs whatever injury disclosure would cause, the application shall not be denied.
Also bear in mind that FoI Act does not apply to: published materials or material available for purchase by the public; library or museum materials kept solely for public reference and exhibition purposes. See Section 26 of the Act.
Benefits of the FoI Act If Properly Implemented.
1. If properly implemented, the law will improve the standards of media reporting and investigation, reduce reckless rumours and improve due diligence in verifying facts which are part of the public record.
2. It would introduce good governance practices within the public sector. This would in turn enhance the ability of the government to ensure the provision of desired public infrastructure, and encourage the efficient management of public resources.
3. It will enhance citizens’ confidence and participation in governance as well as reduce corruption.
4. The Act offers a positive contribution towards meeting the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups. Interestingly, the Act recognizes the right of illiterates and also people with physical disabilities as Section 3(3)&(4) provides that persons with disabilities and educationally challenged persons can apply through a third party or by an oral application in which case the public officer would have to reduce the request into writing and provide a copy of the written request to the applicant.
5. Another benefit of the FoI Act would be the provision of employment. The dire need for information management, record keeping and ancillary processes that are necessary to facilitate compliance with the FoI Act, by both public and relevant private institutions, provides employment opportunities for the masses.
The list of benefits are quite numerous and cannot be exhausted in one fell swoop.
It is heart-wrenching that the FoI Act has been grossly under-utilized. Many Nigerians are not aware of the existence of the FoI Act. Implementing the FoI Act comprehensively is a major step towards establishing a transparent government, one in which Nigerians can have an active voice in the process of governance and partake in policy making. This can only happen with committed and efficacious enforcement of the law. The success of the Freedom of Information Act is dependent on a partnership between the government, the media, civil society and the private sector. Transparency in government would check government excesses, improve efficiency in bureaucracy, reduce corruption and support economic growth and foreign investments.
Having been introduced to the FoI Act and what it is all about, one can at this juncture comfortable contribute in discussions on this topic anywhere, and outline more benefits/challenges of the FoI Act in the society. Can you take up this challenge? Share your views in the comment section below. Thank you.
Contributor: Desmond C. Otikpa, Esq.