Ghana: Right to Information Bill Takes Centre Stage
With the Disability and Domestic Violence Bills passed into law, civil society advocacy groups have now turned their attention on the Freedom of Information Bill.
The Freedom of Information Coalition, Ghana, a civil society group has therefore urged the government to accelerate the passage of the Right to Information Bill and honour its promise to Ghanaians and the international community.
The Coalition said it believed strongly that some challenges, though apparently insurmountable, could be overcome overtime but could not be a pre-condition for the passage of a fundamental right, which is the very essence of good governance and adherence to the principles of accountability, transparency, integrity, responsiveness, effective participation, the rule of law and human rights.
The Coalition argues that various government officials had made comments expressing concern about calls for accelerating the passage of the Bill which are generating uncertainties, suggesting that the Government was making a U- turn on the matter.
"It has become apparent that government now believes that the building of a national information management system and the promotion of a proper record keeping culture is a pre-condition to fulfilling its mandate under Article 21(f) of the 1992 Constitution.
"It guarantees that all persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as necessary for a democratic society."
The Coalition said these provisions were deep rooted in the African Union Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which expressly called for the right to information to be protected by laws.
"In addition to these obligations, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of which Ghana partly states that 'Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.'"
This included freedom to hold information without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers, it said.
The Coalition said information generated by the Government of Ghana in the name of the people of Ghana belongs to the people of Ghana.
"Therefore public information, which is, any information generated by a public officer or private person in the cause of discharging a public duty should first and foremost be free unless it is lawfully exempted as are necessary in a democratic society."
But in practice freedom of information is far from being achieved due to the fact that public officials under various legislations are under oaths of secrecy not to disclose information unless they were authorized to do so.
"This culture of silence that exists in all facets of public life impedes and undermines citizens' ability to discharge their constitutional duty to hold government to account.
"In that respect, legislation is required as a first step to promote a new regime of disclosure and reorient public officers to give access to information unless lawfully exempted."
The Coalition said without "a clear legal burden placed on the public officer to disclose information" he/she would continue to deny the citizen's access to information even with the best information management system in place.
When passed, the Freedom of Information Act will give journalists and their media house and to a large extent members of the public the right to obtain information bothering on issues of governance. The most essential ingredient to journalists is information, but what will journalists write without credible information'? In its absence, society will be fed with stories based on half truths or speculation.
One of the strongest benefits of freedom of information (FoI) is that it will help journalists to replace propaganda and polemic with empirical evidence. Citizens would now have more factual and detailed till understanding of problems facing schools, hospitals, district assemblies, the police and the criminal justice system, the NHIS and, of course, central government.
We know, despite constant official rhetoric that this and that are on course, if journalists could have unfettered information to what happens in the board rooms, the public will be in the position to know that things aren't what officials say they are.
In many democracies, unfettered access to information is right and not a privilege. Besley et al 'Mass Media and Political Accountability' ( In the Right to Tell 2002) argue that how the government treats the media industry affects the development of news media and the quantity of news generated. In their view, significant costs could in the long run be associated with underdeveloped media. Moreover, the underdevelopment of the media is often the result of government's decision to insulate themselves from scrutiny and criticism.
In Ghana currently, there may not be a deliberate government policy to put barriers in the way of the media, but the problem with accessing information still largely rests with an unchanging public service structure that bars the disclosure of information by a subordinate without the prior approval of a superior. How far has Ghana gone with the civil service reform programme which started some years back to change the attitude of public servants to the growing needs of society. It seems the enthusiasm to reform the service to make it proactive to changing needs of a fast developing economy and information hungry society has been abandoned.
As Philip Elliot argues in his article 'Intellectuals, the Transforming Society and the Disappearance of the Public Spheres, that what we are seeing now and what we face now is a continuation of the shift away from involving people as political citizens towards the consumption units of the corporate world. He argues further that since the media purports to represent the people, the consequences of public officials denying journalists information is the eroding of the public sphere as espoused by German media sociologist, Jurgen Habermas.
For the country to move forward socially, politically and economically, we need to develop a political and economic system based on knowledge information than we are enjoying now. The fear is that if care is not taken, we might be caught in an era when government and corporations that have a primary aim of protecting their interests will keep sensitive information away from the public.
Elsewhere in the west pressure groups are putting pressure on the sources of public information, (of which governments and corporations are the main ones) to open up. For us in Ghana, the negative attitudes of public officials towards people who request information from them points to the fact that public information; which is supposed to be free as a public right will in future be available at a price. When that happens , speculation will take the better of journalism.