Accra, Sept. 27, GNA - As the world commemorates the 'International Right to Know Day' on Friday September 28, 2007 the 'Coalition on the Right to Information' in Ghana finds it strategic to once again bring the issue of the Right to Information (RTI) Bill to the fore as part of the wider agenda to promote transparency, accountability and good governance in Ghana.

In Ghana, the Bill on the Right to information went to the mill in 2002 but the millers have not found it necessary to put it into the grinding machine.

One, therefore, has the right to speculate whether the dillydallying has been occasioned by the cobwebs in the closets of some politicians and public officers.

The Coalition is convinced that the passage of the RTI is a necessary pillar in the evolution of democratic governance and must be looked at as a matter of priority by the Government. The Coalition on the Right to Information in Ghana has been formed with wide membership of public and private bodies that have come together to advocate the protection of the Right to Information through the passage of RTI legislation and also to serve as a monitoring tool that would promote its effective implementation.

Since its establishment in 2003, the Coalition has undertaken several projects to raise awareness on the right to information and campaign for greater transparency. The objective of its activities is to bring together a diverse network of civil society actors, policy makers, and government workers in an effort to firmly place RTI on the national agenda, and to sensitise the public, as the primary beneficiaries of the law, on the importance of the successful passage of the RTI law in Ghana.

The Coalition recognises that its effort at lobbying the Government needs the input of civil society as a whole. It, therefore, welcomes all interested stakeholders to join the Coalition in this mission to make the right to information a living reality for the people of Ghana. Journalists in their quest to secure information for the public good encounter State officials, who refuse to cooperate with media practitioners.

It is completely unjustifiable that public officials do not provide the public with access to the huge amounts of valuable information that they produce as part of the routine discharge of theirs duties. Such officials need to be told in clear language that they do not own the information that they create and collect. Information belongs to the public - it is created with public money by public servants, paid by the public treasury. It is a national resource.

The world body has declared September 28 as the Right to Know Day, ironically the day remains in the history books of the academia. The day has not received the needed attention and publicity for broad based participation.

The Right to Know Day commemorates the fact that people have a right to access information about the activities and decisions that affect their lives. Governments need to be open to their citizens. Yet, throughout the world, only 60 countries have enacted access to information legislations, which would open government records to public scrutiny.

Speaking to the Ghana News Agency in an interview, Nana Oye Lithur of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Africa Office in Accra, said the day provided a good opportunity to reflect on the importance of the simple but empowering, right to information.

She said at the most basic levels, people should be able to participate actively in decision-making but this would be hindered if they cannot effectively access key information.

Without access to government policies and information, media practitioners; government functionaries; opposition politicians and the public would have to depend on unorthodox means of information gathering, packaging and dissemination.

In such situation, how can the citizens be sure that their interest is being sincerely protected? How can people be sure that money is being spent on the activities that the government says it is spending them on if they cannot see the relevant documents for themselves? The fact that politicians and bureaucrats are aware that their actions and decisions cannot be scrutinised also means that public officials can much more easily engage in corrupt practices that cost the country money and resources.

Nana Oye Lithur said democracy thrives on transparency; therefore, open governance must be supported and extended at a practical level as an absolute priority. Recognising the right to information and implementing an effective access to information regime is a simple, but extremely useful, first step towards attainment of good governance. This year's celebration of the Right to Information Day should be used to stimulate governments to remove legislative and bureaucratic practices that seek to hinder the implementation of the right to information laws. The day offers governments the opportunity to openly commit themselves to the tenets of good governance, democracy and people-centred development.

For a relatively small cost and investment of time at the outset, entrenchment of an effective access to information regime would immediately show returns- it would empower people to more meaningfully engage in the democratic process, increase government transparency and reduce corruption.

It would be good for the economy - open governance, with its associated anti-corruption focus, makes countries more attractive to outside investors. Open government and information sharing also contributes to national stability.

Serious implementation of the right to information would also immediately set new standard for bureaucratic and parliamentary accountability. Public officials would be forced to recognise that they worked for the people's interest and that the people havd the right to scrutinise their activities.

According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative the day offers the opportunity to question the rationale for the apparent delay by the Ghanaian government in passing the freedom of information legislation.

"We request that Cabinet considers the draft Bill and submits it to Parliament for adoption as soon as possible. "We urge that the draft Bill needs to be developed in partnership with the public and civil society," the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative states.

Other media practitioners that GNA spoke to on the freedom of information Bill suggested that the law should be based on the principles of maximum disclosure. All people should be given the legal right to access government documents.

In this era of privatisation and outsourcing of public services to private companies, even documents held by private bodies should be captured under the law since it is now common knowledge that some Western companies operating in Africa have perfected the practice of influencing decision-makers.

Some media practitioners suggested that release of documents should only be refused if disclosure would be against the public interest. Public interest should be narrowly defined to mean the protection of national security or personal should not be used to protect government from being embarrassed or to hide corruption. Information is power and in the spirit of democracy and equality, it needs to be shared freely with all people. Entrenchment of the right to information is a practical first step.

Feature Article of Thursday, 27 September 2007

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