A Federal High Court judge sitting in Abuja, Justice Gabriel Kolawole, has asked for an amendment of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 to ensure that information supplied in compliance with the Act is done on a need to know basis.
Justice Kolawole said that unless adequate statutory safeguards are embedded in the Act, the underlying intention of government for enacting the law may be undermined or sabotaged as “irate individuals or busy bodies will abuse the rights which it has created with regard to information on public administration.”
According to him, the Act as it stands has created legal rights without a corresponding legal responsibilities and would lead to a situation where scarce public resources, time and energy are squandered in attending to requests which the applicant does not need.
He insisted that the responsibility to use the Act by Nigerians as an instrument to ensure transparency in governance “should not be left so loose and at large without any form of checks and, perhaps, balances”.
“It is my view that it is also part of transparency that rights created by enactments such as the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 are themselves not abused by irate litigants or those one may describe as ‘busy bodies,” the judge said.
He called on the National Assembly to undertake a review of the Act so as to ensure that access to information is only made available to such applicants who genuinely need it for specific purposes.
Kolawole expressed these views while delivering judgement in a suit instituted by Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, PIN, a non-governmental organization, seeking an order of mandamus to compel presidential spokesman, Reuben Abati, to provide detailed information on the multi-million dollar contract awarded in April 2013 to an Israeli company, Elbit Systems, to monitor Internet communication in Nigeria.
The Stop Impunity Nigeria, SIN, Campaign had filed a ex-partemotion on behalf of PIN on June 5, 2013, seeking leave of the court to apply for: “a declaration that the denial of access and refusal to make available to PIN detailed information on the contract awarded to Elbit Systems, a company based in Haifa, Israel, for the supply of the Wise Intelligence Technology System for Intelligence Analysis and Cyber Defence for Nigeria by Dr Abati without an explanation constitutes an infringement of PIN’s rights guaranteed and protected by section 1 (1) of the Freedom Information Act, 2011,” among other reliefs sought.
Ruling on the motion, Justice Kolawole stressed that there is no country in the world where access to all forms of public records are thrown open even to an applicant who is not required to show any specific interest in the information requested from a public body.
The judge noted that reading through the processes filed on behalf of PIN in the case, the applicant merely stated that the respondent is the “Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity” but did not state that the respondent in that capacity was being sued as one who awarded the contract in issue.
The judge also questioned whether it was sufficient for Abati to be sued for being a “Special Adviser” to the President on media and publicity, when he has not been shown under any law to be involved in the award of the contact on which information is being requested.
He said he was not aware of any legislation by which the “Office of a Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity” was created as to make “the Respondent as sued in the Motion Ex-parte to be seen as a public body, authority or officer who is prima facie amendable to prerogative orders of mandamus which are judicial instruments to enforce the performance of public duties, Justice Kolawole struck out the motion.