By Yusuf Bitrus
A Federal High Court in Abuja has ordered the federal ministry of finance and that of the Youth and Sports Development to pay an Abuja-based Journalist N2 million as damages incurred over denying her information she requested for.
It can be recall that an Abuja-based journalist, Ms Godsgift Onyedinefu requested for information from the two federal government establishments in 2019 on the cost of Nigeria’s participation in the 2018 World Cup but was denied.
The court ruled that the refusal by the two federal ministries to provide her with the information she requested amounted to an unlawful violation of her right of access to information and ordered that she should be paid N2 million as damages.
Delivering judgment in two separate suits filed by the journalist against the ministries, Justice Donatus Uwaezuoke Okorowo directed the two affected ministries to make available to Ms Onyedinefu all the information she applied for in her letter dated June 3, 2019 not later than seven days from the court’s judgment.
The court ordered that the two ministries pay her N1 million each 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 first suit filed on her behalf on July 26, 2019 by a Lagos-based lawyer and member of Media Rights Agenda’s Network of FOI Lawyers, Mr. Charles Musa, the journalist named the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, the Minister of Youth and Sports Development and the Attorney-General of the Federation as defendants.
In the second suit, filed on the same day, she named as defendants, the Federal Ministry of Finance, the Minister of Finance and the Attorney-General of the Federation.
Ms Onyedinefu is praying the court to direct the ministries and their ministers 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.
The Journalist specifically prayed the court for the following:
- A declaration that she is entitled to receive from the defendants the information she requested, having made a written application on June 3, 2019, which the Ministry of Youth and Sports received on June 17, 2019 and the Finance Ministry received on June 27, 2019;
- A declaration that the failure, neglect and/or refusal of the defendants to make available to her the information she requested through her letters to them is wrongful, unlawful and amounts to a gross violation to 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 defendant 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 defendants 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 ministries and their ministers 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 each of the ministries 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 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 on the ground that 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, the Judge 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.
The court 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 ministries by virtue of the provisions of the FOI Act.
“I agree with the plaintiff’s 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 one”, the Judge said.
He explained that “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 upheld her claim that the ministries were in clear breach of the provision of the FOI Act by their failure to provide her with the information she requested, saying their 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 ministries and their ministers.