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27.09.2004 Feature Article

Access to Information Key to Democracy and Development

Access to Information Key to Democracy and Development
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(A GNA feature by Francis Ameyibor)

Accra, Sept. 27, GNA - Kwami! You cannot ask me such a question. How can you call me on the air and begin to ask me questions about my company? Am not under any obligation to answer your questions or tell you whether my institution is making profit or not?

Journalists in their quest to secure information for the benefit of the public encounter such arrogant public officials, who refuse to cooperate with them and the above dialogue which was a hot exchange between a radio presenter and an official of a well-known public institution, echoed live on a local FM station was one such example.

It is completely unjustifiable for public officials to refuse to account for the huge capital they manage on behalf of the state. Information belongs to the public

Such officials need to be told in clear terms that, they do not own the information that they refuse to share. Information belongs to the public - it is created with public money by public servants, paid by the public treasury. It is a national commodity.

The United Nations has set aside every September 28th as the "Right to Know Day." However the Day has not received the needed attention and publicity.

The Day commemorates the right of the individual to access information about the activities and decisions that affects his or her life.

Governments need to be opened to their citizens yet, throughout the world only 60 countries have enacted laws to ensure access to information

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

She said basically 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 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 means that public officials could easily engage themselves in corrupt practices that could break the back of the economy.

Democracy thrives on transparency

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 Day should stimulate governments to remove legislative and bureaucratic practices that 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, access to information, will immediately show returns in empowering people to meaningfully engage in the democratic process; increase government transparency and reduced corruption.

Access to information is good for open governance, with its associated anti-corruption advantages. Open government and information sharing also contributes to national stability.

Serious implementation of the right to information will also immediately set new standards for bureaucratic and parliamentary accountability. Public officials will be forced to recognise that, they work for the interests of people who have the right to scrutinise their activities.

According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Day offers an opportunity to question the rational for the apparent delay by the Ghanaian authorities in passing the freedom of information legislation.

"We request that Cabinet consider the draft Bill and submits it to parliament for adoption as soon as possible."

We need maximum disclosure

"We urge that the draft Bill needed to be developed in partnership with the public and civil society", the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative stated.

Media practitioners that the GNA spoke to on the Bill suggested that it 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 brought under any law where the information affects the right of citizens. Release of documents should be the norm.

Some media practitioners suggested that the 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 embarrassment or to hide corruption, a Senior Journalists stated.

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.