By Amos Safo
The celebration of Right to Information last week marked another milestone in Ghana’s quest to become a model of democracy and good governance.
The week marked the 2021 International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), instituted by UNSECO. The theme, “The Right to Information Act, 2019 (Act 989): A tool to ensure transparency, good governance and sustainable development in leveraging international cooperation”, was apt, especially as Ghana is leading the way in promoting good governance in Africa.
No doubt, promoting transparency and empowering the media to play a critical watchdog role has become a cardinal principle of a mature democracy and progress towards good governance. In that regard any system that opens the public sector and government bureaucracy to media and public scrutiny is seen to treating information as a public good.
From the communicative perspective, debates on access to information came within the framework of the development of a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). UNESCO defines access as ‘the use of media for public service. UNESCO underscores the need to promote a communications environment, where journalism can flourish as a public good.
UNESCO notes that strengthening traditional media in the production and sharing of information requires the recognition of their role in public education and democratic participation through providing voice. Perhaps, this was the driving force behind the global advocacy for the Right to Information, as part of the demcoratisation and good governance agenda.
Free market and media liberalisation
Ghana has gone from the model of protectionism to operating a free-market economy and a liberalized trade environment. This economic transformation has had a significant impact on the media system, which is increasingly becoming more pluralistic. Significantly, the repeal of aspects of the criminal libel law that criminalized free speech and freedom of the media has further media the environment more competitive. Besides, advertising is helping to fund a pluralistic media in Ghana, though there is too much commercialization of news to serve corporate interests. A new development is the advent of social media and citizen journalism, which are radically redefining traditional means of mass communication.
Perhaps, the significant development on the media scene is the Constitutional mandate for the National Media Commission (NMC) to regulate the media environment and to insulate state media from state control and promote freedom of expression.
A step further in deepening the media freedom and access to information is the establishment of the Commission of Freedom of Information, a year ago. The full operation of the Commission has probably established Ghana as a full-blown liberalized media system in Ghana comparable to other emerging economies.
Background of Right to Information
In Ghana, article 21 (1) (f) of the 1992 Constitution guarantees every person the right to information subject to certain qualifications and laws necessary in a democratic society. To fully enjoy this fundamental human and constitutional right, the country embarked on the journey for a legislation to operationalize this right. The first draft Right to Information (RTI) Bill was prepared in 1996 and went through several reviews in 2003, 2005 and 2007 but was not tabled in Parliament until the year 2010 during the tenure of the 5th Parliament.
In 2003, a Coalition of Civil Society Organizations and human rights activists known as the Right to Information (RTI) Coalition was established under the leadership of the Commonwealth Human Right Initiative (CHRI) Africa Office. For more than a decade, the Coalition initiated series of advocacy to secure the passage of a good Right to Information Bill including mobilizing public support for the passage of the Bill as well as lobbying the Executive and Members of Parliament to secure their commitment for the passage of the Bill. The Bill went through several painful stages and in 2008 the Bill did not make it to Parliament till that Parliament lapsed in 2008. This was despite assurances by the John Agyekum Kufuor’s Administration that it would pass the law before the end of its tenure.
In 2010, the Bill was introduced to Parliament, and referred to the Joint Committee on Communication and Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, which embarked on a nationwide consultation with support from the World Bank, to seek the views of Ghanaians on the Bill.
The Bill reverted to Cabinet after the 5th Parliament elapsed in January 2013 without passing it. Following this, then President John Dramani Mahama’s administration reintroduced the Bill to the 6th Parliament, but the feet-dragging continued until 2016. Subsequently the 6th Parliament could not complete the consideration processes to facilitate the passage of the Bill before it lapsed in January 2017.
In 2018 following consistent pressure from the civil society actors the AG of Akufo-Addo Administration reintroduced the Bill to the 7th Parliament. At this point the Bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Constitutional, Legal & Parliamentary Affairs and Communications (Joint Committee) to finalise it for presentation to the House. At a stakeholder’s conference in Parliament on May 8, 2018 various CSOs including the RTI Coalition made presentations at the forum with key recommendations regarding certain areas of the Bill that needed amendment.
A final review was undertaken by stakeholders at Koforidua to incorporate final public suggestions into the final draft. In July 2018 the Joint Committee submitted its report on the floor of Parliament. This culminated to the third reading and eventual passage of the Bill on March 26, 2019. For the tortuous journey the Bill went to become a full Act, it can be discerned that governments and public servants in Africa are usually reluctant to relinquish their control over public information. The key reason is to protect themselves from media scrutiny over corruption in procurement and contracting, nepotism, rent-seeking, conflict of interest among other malpractices. Above all, making public information secret, public servants avoid being accountable to the public.
Thankfully, on 21 May 2019, President Nana Akufo-Addo assented to the Bill to end the nearly 20-year journey for the Bill to become an Act. Significantly the Act has removed the statutory right to information held by public institutions. The implementation of the law took effect from January 2020 with the establishment of the Right to Information Commission.
RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, 2019, (ACT 989)
The Act provides for the implementation of the constitutional right to information held by a public institution, subject to the exemptions that are necessary and consistent with the protection of the public interest in a democratic society. The stage is now set to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public affairs, especially in the management of public funds.
Right of access to information
The Act provides that:
(1) A person has the right to information, subject to the provisions of this Act.
(2) The right may be exercised through an application made in accordance with section 18.
(3) A person may apply for information without giving a reason for the application.
Responsibility of public institution in respect of access
One area the public sector has failed in helping media to function properly is the area of publishing information. In that regard the Act mandates public institutions to compile and publish an up-to-date information in the form of a manual for public use, within twelve months from the date of the coming into force of this Act. This is a very positive development in the management of communication of public information, and the first step to making information a public good.
Components of the manual
The manual shall contain the following
(a) List of departments or agencies under that public institution and a description of the organisational structure and responsibilities of each public institution including details of the activities of each division or branch of the public institution.
(b) A list of the various classes of information which are prepared by or are in the custody or under the control of each public institution.
(c) A list of the types of information that may be accessed or inspected free of charge or subject to a fee payable in respect of an access to information as specified under section 75.
(d) The name, address and any other contact details of the information officer or a designated officer of the public institution where a request to access information may be made.
(e) The telephone number, fax, e-mail, postal address and any other contact detail of the information unit in the public institution where information which is accessible under this Act or any other enactment, can be accessed; and
(f) The arrangements made or procedures established by the public institution to enable a member of the public to seek amendment of that member’s personal official records with the public institution.
Further the Act mandates all public institutions to:
(a) generate, process, maintain and preserve information which is accurate and authentic; and
(b) establish an information unit headed by an information officer who shall facilitate access to information.
However, the media and the public cannot obtain:
• Information relating to law enforcement and public safety,
• Information that may interfere with the prevention, detection or curtailment of a contravention or possible contravention of an enactment,
• Information that prejudices the investigation of a contravention or possible contravention of an enactment,
• Information that reveals investigation techniques and procedures in use or likely to be used in law enforcement,
• Information that discloses the identity of a confidential source of information, matter or the information given by a confidential source in respect of law enforcement,
• Information that impedes the prosecution of an offence and endanger the life or physical safety of a person among others.
Perhaps the pertinent issue the Act does not address is the Civil Service Code which bars public servants from divulging information to the media. Prior to coming into force of the Act public servants continually use Oath of Secrecy and the Public Service Code as justification for denying journalists information or confirming information. Maybe, the Act can put an end to these retroactive statutes.
However, passing a law is one thing; turning it into a tool that gives citizens and the media genuine access to information about the workings of their governments is another.
It is refreshing, though that the Right to Information Commission (RTIC), celebrated the ‘Right to Information Week’ (RTI Week) to create awareness on how the public can best exercise their Right to Information, under the Right to Information Act, 2019 (989). It is in the interest of all stakeholders to ensure that the Commission lives up to its core mandate of managing public information to serve the public interest and not private interest.
The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.