October is Black History Month. We continue to celebrate the exceptional black journalists and lawyers around the world who make history through their work. We recently spoke with President Aigbokhan, a prominent Nigerian citizen journalist and public interest lawyer.
When researching Nigeria’s 2011 Freedom of Information Act, Aigbokhan found that, despite the law making public records more easily accessible to the people, the implementation of the law is designed to protect the interest of powerful state actors. As a result this disempowers the public with a disproportionate impact on journalists and other users especially those from rural communities, creating barriers that prevent them from providing the public with necessary and accurate information.
To fight back against this, Aigbokhan co-founded the FOI Counsel (coined from Freedom of Information Act Counsel). This is a network of lawyers working with journalists to aid access to public records and defend their digital rights through legal support and advocacy. Since 2017, they have worked with and assisted 215 clients mainly from rural communities in Nigeria.
We spoke to Aigbokhan about his commitment to supporting his community, the challenges he faces doing this, and the impactful work of the FOI counsel.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a public interest lawyer with a special interest in good governance and freedom of information. I am dedicated to helping my community by building public support for the right to access public records and data through capacity–building, research, and legal representation.
I represented Non-Government Organizations in the ENDSARS Judicial Panel of Enquiry on Police Brutality in Nigeria between 2020 and 2021. I was a Co-Opted Executive Council Member of the Nigeria Bar Association and Co- Chair (non-state actors) of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Working Group on Access to Information of Edo State. I am a member of African Network of Constitutional Lawyers, a member of Freedom of Information Network, a member of the Nigerian Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the Chattered Institute of Arbitration of Nigeria and a member of Nigerian Bar Association.
Before setting up FOI Counsel, I worked as a lawyer with the firm of Chief Uwensuyi-Edosomwan, SAN a full-service law firm. I am an ordained deacon of God and happily married with children. In 2022, I was awarded the Youth Public Interest Lawyers Award by the National Youth Council of Nigeria, for enforcing prisoners’ franchise.
How did you first become interested in working to protect Freedom of Expression?
My interest in the Freedom of Expression space started in 2011 as a researcher. I was one of the first people to write about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when the law was passed. My initial research showed that the law was designed to aid secrecy rather than openness and it was published in the Nigeria National Human Rights Commission Journal in 2013.
It was through this research that I spotted the implementation gap in freedom of expression, particularly as it relates to accessing materials for public expression and participation. In order to combat this, I set up FOI Counsel in 2017, combining my specialized area law and also my passion for community intervention.
Tell us about the work the FOI counsel does?
We are deeply involved in community advocacy and training. We have facilitated many training sessions on the Freedom of Information Act 2011 for community leaders, judges, law students and persons with disabilities. One of our main objectives is to provide legal support through research and litigation.
On 21st day of March 2022, I secured a landmark ruling from the ECOWAS Court restraining the Federal Republic of Nigeria from interfering with processions or protests in any part of the country, protecting the right to peacefully protest and preventing dissenting Nigerian voices from being silenced. The court awarded 15,000 USD in favour of the applicants for the unlawful denial of their right to protest.
We also enforced the right of a student from Nassarawa State University, who was shot dead, during a large student protest over the shortage of water and electricity at the school.
Additionally, in a precedent setting case we represented NGOs & Activists in an action against the Niger Delta Development Commission, requesting certified true copies of documents detailing the expenditure of the Commission between the years 2012-2014. This case took the right to information from a statutory right to a fundamental right and made the right to information a self-standing human right in Nigeria.
The FOI counsel also provides pro-bono services, how does this help promote and defend media freedom in Nigeria?
We have supported individuals, NGOs and media outlets seeking information and data for public participation and fun. Our pro bono services have touched the lives of 437 individuals, including 63 NGOS, 8 journalists and 17 judicial officers.
We have filed pro-bone cases on freedom of expression in both international and national courts. The most notable is the case of Isaac Olamikan & Anor v. Federal Republic of Nigeria & 3 Ors, where the plaintiff was de-registered as a journalist solely because his journalistic work was online.
With the support of Media Defence, we filed an application on behalf of the plaintiff. The application sought a declaration that sections 19 1 (a), 27 and 37 of the Press Council Act of Nigeria of 1992 be declared void. This was made on the grounds that the law states for a person to be registered as journalist, they must have attended a course of training recognized by the Nigeria Press Council and that for a person to be qualified to become an editor, they must be a registered member of Nigeria Union of Journalists and have acquired working experience as a journalist in a reputable newspaper house.
What are the challenges and threats you face working in this area?
Generally, cyber-attacks, government threats and lack of funding are the main problems we have. If we had more funds, we would have more staff to meet the need of those who require legal support.
Another major threat affecting our work is the negative impact that results from losing high-profile public interest cases. For instance, in the case, Registered Trustee of Unemployed Youths V Code of Conduct Bureau & Anor, the Court of Appeal held that asset declaration forms of public officers cannot be accessed unless the owners authorized the Bureau to release it. The Court emphasized that asset publication is not backed by law. The decision impacted the application of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 on public records.
Similarly, in the case, Edo State Agency for the Control of Aids (EDOSACA) v. Austin Osakue & 9 Ors, the Court of Appeal held that FOIA 2011 does not apply to the federating states until a state law on the same subject is enacted. This decision also amputated the application of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 on access to public records at sub-nations.
Learn more about the work of the FOI Counsel here or sign up to their newsletter. Additionally, the FOI counsel published the first practice book on the Nigerian Freedom of Information Act 2011, which can be bought here.
Cases such as these and the support that the FOI Counsel provides are essential to promoting and protecting freedom of expression and information. We thank President Aigbokhan for sharing his thoughts and for his relentless commitment to fighting for the democratic rights of those whose voices may otherwise be silenced.
To read more about the work of lawyers in sub-Saharan Africa, you can read our interviews with Nadine Kampire, Cathy Anite, Michelle Mwiinga, Louis Gitinywa, Mercy Mutemi, Tonny Kirabira, Gosego Rockfall Lekgowe and Solomon Okedara.
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