US Based Journalist & RAIC Tussle over Release of Information

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    Right to Access Information Chairman, Ibrahim Seaga Shaw

    By Amin Kef Sesay

    A Sierra Leonean journalist based in the United States, AL MansaraY, has expressed dissatisfaction and criticised the Right to Access Information Chairman, Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, for being ‘unprofessional’ and ‘inefficient’ in the discharge of his statutory duties  in failing to issue a final letter to a Freedom of Information requests complaint to the Commission.

    “It’s now over 121 days since the Freedom of Information request was made on November 14, 2019,” he claimed.

    AL MansaraY, an investigative journalist based in Washington D.C., USA, who’s working on a research project on human trafficking within the West African sub-region, initially made the request for information – using the RAI Act 2013 to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA).

    He stated in a statement that 83 days later to date, when on December 18, 2019 – after MSWGCA refused to provide him with the requested information, he filed an official complaint to the RAIC, noting that till now his complaint remains unresolved as Commissioner Shaw is yet to issue a final letter to enable him take his case to the High court.

    “To this day, Commissioner Shaw, have not  resolved nor issued a final letter on the refusal of the Ministry of Social Welfare to provide me with all of the information requested, or an explanation as to why they are not making available the information and documents sought, as is mandated by the law. Obviously, I need his final order to further seek relief at the High Court of Sierra Leone, and even beyond, if I am not satisfied with the outcome. And his inability to provide this letter is harming my cause and likely victims of human trafficking,” he said.

    He said the actions of Commissioner Shaw – for the most part – in the handling of the complaint, has been appalling and thus, disappointing with regards to the length of time it has taken.

    He noted the seemingly inappropriate engagement with the other party (the ministry), as it defeats the purpose for which a Freedom of Information Commissioner was appointed.

    He said Commissioner Shaw should have been concerned with demanding and making sure that the requested information is provided to him, and in a timely manner and if not, he should make a finding and reasonably issues a final order to be given to each relevant party in the dispute so that the unsatisfied person or entity could take that letter to the high court for review as the law stipulates.

    He cited Section 45 and corresponding subsections and paragraphs of Part VII of the RAIC Act 2013 which deals with appeals, provides a timeline to the Commissioner in reviewing a decision when dealing with a complaint under section 43.

    He said Section 43, and corresponding paragraphs, is the relevant section of the Act that deals with filing a complaint for review by the Commission if a requestor believes they have been refused or denied access to information they requested.

    “It’s so disappointing, and in fact, ironic, and even comical that Commissioner Shaw’s failure to issue a final decision thus, violating the Act…is the very similar behaviour  or illegal action that the Ministry of Social Welfare committed in handling my requests which led me to make the formal complaint to the commission. Now, the Commission is acting the same way!” MansaraY said.

    He said the MSWGCA, which  has now been separated into two Ministries: Social Welfare and Gender and Children’s Affairs through its National Task Force on Human Trafficking Coordinator Dehunge Shiaka, had initially refused to provide the requested information within the 15-working-days statutory timeline allowed for by the Act, thereby violating the law.

    He said Dehunge Shiaka  only provided lengthy background information 68 days later on January 21, 2020 and needlessly copying the office of Vice President Judah, others – after been reported to the Commissioner on December 18, 2019, and a flurry of ensuing email communications.

    ‘But even then the information contained in the correspondence was not what I had requested for; and I made that known to Commissioner Shaw.’

    He said on February, 5th   after 84 days since the freedom of information request was made, Shiaka (the Ministry of Social Welfare), finally sent a batch of documents, noting that all the documents sent to him did not address the information he was seeking.

    He said he particularly took issues with Commissioner Shaw, when after receiving the email with the attached documents – praised the Ministry and wrote: “Many thanks Mr. Shiaka for all your efforts in putting together and sending the requested information. Let us hope that the requester would now be happy with what you have sent so far.”

    “It was like a slap in the face! For Commissioner Shaw to say ‘thanks’ to Shiaka (Ministry of Social Welfare) for a job well done after they have clearly violated my rights to access information by not providing the requested information on time, is irresponsible. And, when in fact, the documentation provided was not what I have requested for or was seeking in the first place,” he said.

    He noted that the Right to Access Information Commissioner’s job is actually one of the simplest and easiest to perform by anyone with the right academic background as Commissioner Shaw, if only that person isn’t politically corrupted or lazy.

    “There is nowhere within the RAIC Act 2013 that the Commissioner or its agents are directed by that law to hold meetings with one party and leaving the other out. That’s not Commissioner Shaw’s job. His job function is primarily to compel compliance of the Act. So, for him to entertain and held a meeting with the Ministry unbeknownst to me, until afterwards  is so egregious and an abuse of authority that leads one to want to believe that he may have been conspiring with the ministry in withholding the information that I requested. For that, I may instruct my attorney to file a court claim against him in his individual capacity,” Journalist MansaraY said.

    The meeting he was referencing to above, was requested by Shiaka (Ministry of Social Welfare), and held with Commissioner Shaw and his team, according to emails reviewed and independently verified by this medium.

    The essence of the meeting, according to the email communications, and Commissioner Shaw, was for Shiaka (Ministry of Social Welfare) to get further clarifications regarding the RAIC Act 2013.’

    However, Journalist MansaraY said he was never made aware of the request for a meeting by Shiaka, nor knew that it was going to be held and subsequently held until after it was already concluded.

    He said to date, he was yet to know the time, place, what was specifically discussed, and who were present at the meeting.

    He said when he raised issues and requested notes of the meeting held between the Commission and Shiaka (Ministry of Social Welfare), he received a strongly worded response from the legal team of the RAIC that says in part: “I am directed by the RAI Commission to reply to your previous email dated Tuesday 25th February 2020 regarding your request for information.

    “The Commission wishes to respectfully inform you that the legal department had no obligation to ask you for permission or seek your approval before accepting a sit down with Mr. Dehunge Shiaka. Further the discussions with Mr. Shiaka were informal and were more about him seeking clarifications on the provisions of the RAI Act 2013 and thus there are no minutes to provide you sir.”

    He further stated that in reply to the email above, he wrote, also in part: “What I wrote and expressly concerned about was setting up and holding the meeting without my knowledge. And if Commissioner Shaw, the Commission and yourself think that was, and is appropriate, then, our legal, moral and logical opinions on this cannot be acres divergent.

    “Frankly, I could care less who Commissioner Shaw – and the Commission – meets with…it’s their prerogative. What I’m concerned about is the Commission meeting with one party in a dispute on a subject matter – without the knowledge of the other – until afterwards, as it stimulates and gives rise to the perception of impropriety. And blatantly asserting that you ain’t providing those communications – because there are no minutes to give me as the meeting was informal – is very worrisome.”

    The response to MansaraY was written by Alan Benjamin – a member of the legal team of Right to Access information Commission.

    He further that the Freedom of Information Act is very simple to read and understand especially for someone with the level of education as Shiaka,  a Coordinator for the National Efforts in Eradicating Trafficking in Persons in Sierra Leone.

    “It’s bullshit! That so-called meeting is just some of the shenanigans they’re used to in Sierra Leone when they try to indulge in nefarious activities to circumvent the rule of law,” he said firmly.

    He said Shiaka, however, later provided what appears to be a second batch of information and documents that almost contained the same documents sent in late January and that though, some of the information was an updated version of the previous, Shiaka, with clarity, made known to MansaraY that information he was requesting specific to Sierra Leone was not been held by the Ministry of Social Welfare, but another agency.

    This updated information, MansaraY says, is a partial answer or fulfilment to his Freedom of Information requests made last year, and that not all have been fulfilled.

    He said the rest of the unanswered Freedom of Information requests that he seeks and still awaits a final letter for, from Commissioner Shaw, noting that he was hoping the Commissioner would have issued a final letter by then but he did not and has yet to do so.

    He said he never intended at escalating thie matter to the Commissioner’s level, and now publicly as he has tried at resolving the issue several times by bringing it to the attention of Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Mohamed Haji-Kella and then, Chair of the Committee on Gender and Children’s Affairs Hon. Zainab Sesay, noting that he said he was ignored by the former.

    “I am not required by law to make any request for an internal review, but I decided to do so just to amicably resolve the issue. But apparently, my efforts weren’t appreciated or valued by Hon. Kella because he never responded to my concerns apart from talking to me twice on the phone. And the one person that the constitution says should assist me in obtaining this information, Commissioner Shaw, is now becoming part of the problem. Such a shame for democracy in Sierra Leone!” MansaraY concluded.

    Speaking to this medium at his Krootown Road Office, Chairman, Right to Access Information Commission, Dr. Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, said he was aware of the information request made by journalist AL MansaraY.

    During the interview, this Press was prevented from doing any audio recording despite several pleas.

    The interview was conducted in the presence of one of the members of the RAIC Legal team, the media officer of the Commission and a colleague journalist.

    Dr.Shaw  said sometimes in December 2019, AL MansaraY  only wrote an  application to the Commission for an  information he was seeking from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs.

    He said the Commission engaged the Ministry to ensure that the information requested for by Al MansaraY was provided.

    He said Al MansaraY was not satisfied with the information he received from the Ministry, stating that what they were about to do now was to review the request and ensure that the information is provided, if not, they will close the matter and allow him to go to the High Court to seek redress.

    Also speaking during the interview session, the legal man for the commission, Allen Benjamin, contradicted the statement of the chairman that Al MansaraY only made an application to the Commission and not a complaint.

    He said the journalist did file a complaint to the Commission against the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs for information he was seeking that was yet to be provided to him.

    He said Al MansaraY made a request to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs for certain information, and that the Commission was only brought into the matter on 18th of December, 2019.

    He said the Commission engaged and asked the Ministry to provide the information, but that the Ministry only sent a one line paragraph answer.

    He said they later told the Ministry that the information provided was not enough.

    He said the Commission never had meeting with the Coordinator of the National Task Force on Human Trafficking, Dehunge Shiaka.

    He said the said Coordinator only went to the office to be taken through the Right to Access Information Act of 2013.

    He said Al MansaraY was angry with the Commission when he was informed that the National Task Force on Human Trafficking Coordinator went to the Commission, stating that the 121 days Al MansaraY was saying his request has taken includes the 2019 December holiday, other holidays and weekends, and that the Commission started counting working days at the date the formal complaint was made.

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