Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
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The Liberia Information Commissioner held that the asset declarations of Cabinet members and their deputies should be disclosed pursuant to the Liberia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Commissioner reasoned that, although the documents requested contained personal information, the harm that might be caused by disclosure was outweighed by public interest and served the aim of fighting corruption in Liberia. Further, the Executive Order under which the declarations were made and held was inconsistent with the FOIA to the extent that it limited access to the documents and must give way to the FOIA which states: “Save for the Constitution, this Act is and shall be the primary law governing the right of access to information…… No administrative action, order or regulation contrary to, inconsistent with, or in derogation of this Act shall issue or be effective”.
This case analysis was contributed by Right2Info.org.
In November 2012, the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP) requested copies of asset declaration forms of Cabinet ministers and their deputies. The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) asked CEMESP to pay the cost of reproducing the declaration forms, but later denied the request based on Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In particular, LACC alleged that the requested information fell within the definition of personal information and according to Section 4.5 of the FOIA was exempt from disclosure. Additionally, the disclosure would be in breach of the LACC’s duty under Section 10.3 of Executive order No.38, indicating that a declaration was classified information and only accessible to authorized personnel. Lastly, the LACC argued that the information requested by CEMESP was constitutionally privileged from disclosure in the absence of a court order.
In January 2013, CEMESP submitted a complaint to the Independent Information Commissioner about the LACC’s denial, seeking the Commissioner’s intervention and grant of access.
The Information Commissioner firstly referred to the exemptions provision of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While the Commissioner agreed that asset declarations fell within personal information, it applied the public interest test and held that the LACC had failed to prove the existence of “harm” that would be “greater than the public interest in having the information disclosed”.
With respect to Section 10.3 of Executive Order No. 38, the Commissioner held that the latter was inconsistent with the FOIA. Relying on section 1.7 of the FOIA, he concluded that where provisions of any statute clash with the FOIA, the latter holds sway and prevails over any other statutes and administrative orders.
Lastly, referring to the Article 16 of the Constitution, the Commissioner found that the disclosure would not constitute “unwarranted intrusion” or disturbance of privacy rights, but rather strengthen the fight against corruption.
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