In what has been described as a victory for transparency, the first Freedom of Information request denial hearing in Liberia was concluded at the Office of the Independent Information Commissioner, Sinkor in Monrovia.
By this decision, the Liberia Anti- Corruption Commission (LACC) is mandated to disclose Asset Declaration Forms requested by Center for Media Studies and Peace-building, (CEMESP) since last year.
"This represents the first FOI hearing in Liberia, West Africa and the Africa continent at large," Cllr. BedorWla Freeman prefaced his verdict of a matter that was heard last month.
Cllr. Freeman took time to go through the arguments of the both the complainant, being CEMESP and 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."
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, Mr. Malcolm Joseph, flanked by its lawyers represented by Cllr. Sayama Cephus and Attorney Lamii Kpargoi had 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 of the LACC. 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.
As a background to this matter, CEMESP on November 13th 2012 filed an FOI request for asset declaration forms of ministers and deputies that are in the custody of the Liberia Anti- Corruption Commission. To this letter, LACC on November 21 2012, replied and stated: "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 November 22 2012, CEMESP wrote back requesting the LACC to furnish the center with the reproduction cost the documents. On December 19th 2012, the LACC in a dramatic twist, declined to cooperate in disclosing the asset declaration forms of ministers and deputies, citing section 4.5 of chapter 4.0, which states that personal document or record is exempted from general right to access if its disclosure would constitute unreasonable disclosure of the personal information.
Owing 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.