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Liberian organization wins freedom of information case, sets precedent for African continent

In what has been described as a victory for transparency, the first Freedom of Information (FOI) request denial hearing in Liberia was concluded in July, at the Office of the Independent Information Commissioner, Sinkor, in Monrovia. With this decision, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) is mandated to disclose Asset Declaration Forms requested by Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding, (CEMESP) since last year.

“This represents the first FOI hearing in Liberia, West Africa and the Africa continent at large,”Cllr. Bedor Wla Freeman prefaced his verdict of a matter that was heard last month.

Cllr. Freeman examined the arguments of both the complainant, CEMESP, and the LACC, the respondent. Citing various constitutional and statutory provisions that underpinned his analysis, he then handed down a verdict that will go down as the first Administrative FOI case law precedent, “not only in Liberia but on the African continent.”

The lawyer representing the Liberian Anti Corruption Commission took exception to the ruling and submitted the commission's preparedness to appeal “in a court of competent jurisdiction.”

CEMESP Executive Director Malcolm Joseph argued that the FOI law has primacy over the Executive Order 38 section 10.3 – the privacy protection basis that the LACC had advanced, among other things, for refusing to supply the requested information.

The strong point of the ruling asserts in agreement with the pleadings of CEMESP lawyers that the public good in fighting corruption outweighs the privacy protection argument that the LACC made. It further maintains that the LACC has not sufficiently established the harm that disclosure will have on those public officials whose asset declaration forms have been requested by CEMESP.

Background

On 13 November 2012, CEMESP filed an FOI request for the asset declaration forms of ministers and deputies that are in the custody of the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission.

On 21 November 2012, the LACC replied: “while we wish to cooperate with your center in the premise, we however like to inform you of the financial constraints the commission is faced with. In view of the foregoing, we would appreciate it were you to facilitate at your expense the reproduction of the forms.”

On 22 November 2012, CEMESP wrote back requesting the LACC to furnish the center with the reproduction cost the documents. On 19 December 2012, the LACC declined to cooperate in disclosing the asset declaration forms, citing section 4.5 of chapter 4.0, which states that personal documents or records are exempted from general right to access if their disclosure would constitute unreasonable disclosure of the personal information.

Due to the fact that the office of the Independent Information Commissioner was then not functional, CEMESP had to file a writ of Mandamus to the Supreme Court for interpretation. The Supreme Court ruling had directed that hearing on the matter be conducted by the Independent Information Commissioner, which has been done.

It is unclear when the LACC will proceed with its appeal or reconsider to abide by the ruling of the Independent Information Commissioner in granting CEMESP access to the request asset declaration forms of Ministers and Deputies.
 
Signed:__________________
             Malcolm W. Joseph
             Executive Director
              Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP)

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