Ghana: Not This Kind of Right to Information Bill- We Are Better Off Without It

OPINION
14 June 2007
Posted to the web 14 June 2007
Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa

I HAVE been curious to look out for the much talked about Right To information Bill which its supporters chastise government for unduly delaying.

Having found the draft bill, which is to be sent to Parliament for enactment, I am rather happy at the delay and will further contend that this bill in its present state should not be enacted.

First of all, it is important to recognize the crucial importance of a Right to Information Bill in a democratic form of government. The right of the citizenry in any state to have access to information in knowing what her leaders are up to and even to know the kind of representatives they should choose and what policies their leaders formulate lies at the heart of democracy. This is what informed the first session of the United Nation's General Assembly in 1946 in passing Resolution 59 (1), which stated in part, "Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touch-stone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated."

It is further useful to recall the entrenchment of this principle in the 1948 United Nations Declaration for Human Rights whose Article 19 states "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

To also point out the importance of this bill in eliminating corruption and increasing transparency and accountability by public officers is to merely state the obvious.

It is for this reason that we all agree in principle that a Right to Information Bill is long overdue if we have been serious about our democratic commitment and if we wholly agree with the international conventions we ratify.

In this vein also, we cannot draft anything and call it a Right to Information Bill because that would only be an exercise in self deceit.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), any Right to Information Bill must meet minimum international standards among these include the principle of maximum disclosure, limited exceptions for withholding information and the establishment of effective and efficient appeals mechanisms.

Sad to note, the draft bill, which is to be laid before Parliament, falls short of these standards. A careful study of the draft bill rather reveals minimum disclosure, maximum exceptions for withholding information and a suspicious appeal mechanism, which can best be described as a conflict of interest process. Even a further comparison of our draft bill with other jurisdictions that have a Right to Information Bill confirms this.

In our draft bill, one gets the impression right from the introduction that the government wants to hide a lot from the people. In our bill, the denial by an information officer to citizen who wants information on the basis that that information is going to be published any way is not acceptable especially when it gives so much room to the executive to abuse this clause.

The establishment of effective and efficient appeals mechanisms:

To enforce this principle, what other jurisdictions have done is to establish an Information Commission, which looks into cases of non-disclosure brought by aggrieved parties. However in Ghana's bill, the Minister of State for the Ministry whose information officer has refused to make a disclosure must chair or delegate an internal appeal process. This raises issues of conflict of interest and makes a mockery of the very principles of a Right to Information Bill.

Though the bill sees that this might not work and gives remedy that an unsatisfied party can proceed to the high court, the question is why the mockery and why should the ordinary Ghanaian be subjected to all these.

Fees:

I have also been shocked the bill requires people seeking information from the information officer must pay a fee to be determined by the Ministry, which would have oversight responsibility of this bill when it becomes an act.

That this bill gives such a blank cheque to the executive in fixing the fee for requests is a recipe for disaster as the executive at any time can increase the fees to the detriment of the people and to the erosion of any democratic gains. Let us not for a minute think that our democratic process will always elect angels into office. Legislations that connote such thinking must be avoided.

Another worrying issue here is that an appeal also attracts a fee to be determined again by the executive. To me, this does not show commitment on the part of the executive and it begins to appear that we are better of without the enactment of this bill.

Final comments:

In my opinion, the creation of Information Officers as the bill puts it is unnecessary and a further drain on the tax payers money. There are already public relation officers in the Ministries, Departments and Agencies who can be used.

Some of the expenses for these information officers should rather be used to create an Information Commission which will play an impartial role (kind of an ombudsman) in times of appeals rather than the mockery of internal appeals created by the draft bill.

On the issue of fees, it is instructive to note that the Right to Information Bill, which India passed in 2004, allows for people who are below the poverty line to access information for free. Ghana may learn from this as a better sign of commitment if we cannot even make it free for all.

Finally, it is important that we tell our Government that a Right to Information Bill has not collapsed any government in history. Sweden passed its Freedom of the Press Act in 1776 and no Swedish Government has ever collapsed because of this legislation. On the contrary, a sincere and proper legislation would rather help restore confidence in public officials, create an environment of trust and even help Government to let the people know their programmes and projects.

There is nothing the Ghanaian Government should fear and therefore prepare a better bill for enactment.

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