Mixed feelings about Right to Information Bill

Participants at a workshop to discuss the Right to Information (RTI) Bill on Thursday suggested that the Bill must not be passed into law until concerns over some exemptions and other shortfalls are rectified.

Ms Mina Mensah, Africa Regional Coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said the draft bill, in its current form, when passed would limit access to information rather than encourage the right to information.

“We will rather not have the Bill, than to have it passed as it is,” she said, explaining that exemptions in the Bill were too broadly formulated.

The exemptions, she said, would enable government and public officials to withhold information from the public.

The workshop organised by the Economy of Ghana Network was on the theme: “Right to Information as a Tool for Social Accountability.”

Ms Mensah, who proposed some changes to the Bill, said government’s readiness to pass into law was not because of the commitment to free flow of information but a push to satisfy the requirements of the open governance system.

She expressed concern about the proposal in the Bill that reposes power in the Attorney General to implement the law, saying Ghanaians would rather have an independent enforcement body.

Ms Mensah said it is important to link the Right to Information, to the right to development and cited a contractor working on the Dansoman road who refused to respond to questions from the residents because they did not give him any contract.

She said the requirement in the current Bill, which entails that persons seeking information must pay for the total cost, is unclear.

“In any case organisations are supposed to have records and so if one is seeking information one has to pay for the cost of the photocopy or the pen-drive or the CD and not for the cost of gathering the information,” she said.

Ms Mensah, responding to comments by Mr Mahama Ayariga, Minister of Information and Media Relations, said although it looked as if one can access information not everything is made available.

Mr Ayariga said there is an elaborate constitutional arrangement that ensures that information is available to the public.

He said with the passage of the Bill into law, it would become a legal obligation.

However, Mr Kwesi Jonah who is a research fellow at the Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research said it would be elusive to say that Ghana already has a system that ensures that information is available.

He argued that it was difficult, for instance, to get information on the kinds of assets that Ministers of State declared.

Mr Este Sikanu from the University of IOWA said it was important that the Right to Information was made a simple process adding that the passage of the bill into law would demonstrate that journalism can be a tool for change.

He urged editors of various media houses to encourage their reporters to use RTI to get good stories and not discourage them for fear of falling foul of government.

Mr Sikanu said: “The basic rudiments of investigative journalism and sourcing for story ideas through observation, examination of documents… as well as health records will help unearth issues of public concern.”

Professor Mike Ocquaye, Executive Director African Public Policy Institute, who chaired the workshop, said the passage of the RTI would enhance the work of researchers and academics adding that it would also be a way to promote factual journalism as against speculative journalism.

He also recommended an independent agency to implement the law.

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