Liberia: Row over govt. refusal to make “Asset Declaration” public
A row is brewing between the Liberian government and its parastatals and media rights/development groups over failure of authorities to make available assets declaration documents of public officials as required by the country’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Law.
The Liberia Media Center (LMC) has said “the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission public refusal to release asset declaration documentation from state officials to the public runs contrary to Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act and undermines the principle of maximum disclosure.”
The LACC has argued that the information under discussion is personal records, and hence cannot be disclosed but LMC disagrees. Even recently, the Minister of Information was also quoted as saying the information was private record.
LMC has just released findings of a new study on the Liberian government’s implementation of its “150 Days Action Plan” set out by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf after she was inaugurated for her second 6-year term of office last January.
Summarizing the findings of the study in a statement signed by the Executive Director of LMC, Lawrence Randall said: “that the standard of determining privacy cannot apply in this case, as once a public official assumes a public function and the official is made to submit by law or policy, personal information, that submission passes the public interest test; hence the information can no longer be deemed personal”.
“Section 4.8 of the Act states “A public authority or private entity may not refuse access to or disclosure of information simply by claiming it is “confidential or secret”. It further provides three requirements for such exemptions to hold. The most relevant is “the harm to be caused by the disclosure is greater than the public interest in having the information disclosed”.
In this case and consistent with the public policy reasoning behind the disclosure of access, the LMC considers the withholding of said information as contrary to the spirit and intent of the Freedom of Information Act.
“It might be useful to appreciate the public policy reasoning behind the call for ‘Asset Declaration’. The overarching goal is to curtail corruption, where the assets of public officials are made public before assuming office, allowing for greater public scrutiny; and when outside government, said asset of the public officials can be audited to ensure there were no abuses. Public Knowledge is a key function of this process."
Furthermore, the LACC being the authority charged with the responsibility to investigate corruption abuses, disclosure practice should be a key cornerstone of its function and seeking to understand, interpret and enforce the relevant provisions of the FOI Law should naturally be its job.
The report states “that because Liberia has no clearly defined Privacy Law, the exemptions within the FOI Law regarding personal records, must be narrowly construed. For purposes of clarity, it has to be understood that the personal information exemption applies to voluntary disclosure of personal records for personal purposes. Here, the disclosure of asset declaration details was mandated by law and not voluntary and hence the exemption does not apply.”
“However, where the information holder can justify that release of personal details could result to more negative consequences; the relevant sections of the record can be redacted, as provided for under the FOI law of Liberia.”
The report refutes the claims by the Minister of Information that the information under consideration was private information, indicating that once deemed personal, the LACC consequently lacked the jurisdiction to demand and possess them.
Liberia Media Center has meanwhile filed an Access to Information request seeking all asset declaration submissions with the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission that has LMC hopes the LACC will appreciate these arguments and ensure maximum disclosure. The results show a lot more is required to strengthen the FOI Regime in Liberia. Serious political will is required to enforce compliance.”