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12.11.2005 Feature Article

The right to information law is the foundation upon which .....

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... to build good governance in Ghana (Part 2 of 2). According to UN Principles On Freedom Of Information, Public bodies have an obligation to disclose information and every member of the public has a corresponding right to receive information; "information" includes all records held by a public body, regardless of the form in which it is stored

Freedom of information implies that public bodies publish and disseminate widely documents of significant public interest, for example, operational information about how the public body functions and the content of any decision or policy affecting the public;

As a minimum, the law on freedom of information should make provision for public education and the dissemination of information regarding the right to have access to information; the law should also provide for a number of mechanisms to address the problem of a culture of secrecy within Government

A refusal to disclose information may not be based on the aim to protect Governments from embarrassment or the exposure of wrongdoing; a complete list of the legitimate aims which may justify non disclosure should be provided in the law and exceptions should be narrowly drawn so as to avoid including material which does not harm the legitimate interest

All public bodies should be required to establish open, accessible internal systems for ensuring the public's right to receive information; the law should provide for strict time limits for the processing of requests for information and require that any refusals be accompanied by substantive written reasons for the refusal(s)

The cost of gaining access to information held by public bodies should not be so high as to deter potential applicants and negate the intent of the law itself;

The law should establish a presumption that all meetings of governing bodies are open to the public;

The law should require that other legislation be interpreted, as far as possible, in a manner consistent with its provisions; the regime for exceptions provided for in the freedom of information law should be comprehensive and other laws should not be permitted to extend it;

Individuals should be protected from any legal, administrative or employment related sanctions for releasing information on wrongdoing, viz. the commission of a criminal offence or dishonesty, failure to comply with a legal obligation, a miscarriage of justice, corruption or dishonesty or serious failures in the administration of a public body(Source: http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/programs/ai/rti/international/intl_standards.htm).

The Right to Information is a Fundamental Human Right.

According to CHRI, lack of information denies people the opportunity to develop their potential to the fullest and realise the full range of their human rights as individual personality, political and social identity and economic capability are all shaped by the information that is available to each person and to society at large. The right to access information therefore underpins all other human rights. For example, freedom of expression and thought inherently rely on the availability of adequate information to inform opinions and the realization of the right to personal safety requires that people have sufficient information to protect themselves.

FOIA is tantamount to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and requires a legally binding treaty obligation since it is within the body of universal human rights law. As affirmed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which 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” [2].

It is important that access to information is recognised as a right in Ghana for several reasons:

It is fundamental to democratic functioning and a pre-condition for good governance and the realisation of all other human rights. As advocated by CHRI, information is not a gift of governments to their people to be withdrawn at will. It is part of the accepted international obligations of the state to its citizens. Information belongs to the public and not governments. The idea that everything must be kept secret unless there is a strong reason for releasing it should be replaced by the idea that all information must be made available unless there are very compelling reasons for withholding it. Thus, it provides a signal that sets a higher standard of accountability. The onus is on the duty-holder to prove its case for refusing to disclose documents. It creates a duty-holder on the one hand and a beneficiary of a legal entitlement on the other. Non-disclosure of information is therefore a violation and the beneficiary can seek legal remedy. It gives citizens the legal power to attack the legal and institutional impediments to openness and accountability that still dominate the operations of many governments. It moves the locus of control from the state to the citizen, reinstating the citizen as sovereign ( [5]). This reduces corruption in government. Other African countries have crossed the bridge from talk and preaching to action and they are reaping the benefits. South Africa passed the Promotion of Access to Information Act on 2 February 2000. Uganda's Parliament has passed the Access to Information Bill, intended to give citizens access to information and records of government ministries, departments, statutory corporations, commissions and other government agencies. The bill provides protection to whistleblowers against punishment and for the appointment of an information officer to allow access to records in any given government ministry. It requires the Minister of Information to submit an annual report to Parliament on the requests to access information. Nigeria's House of Representatives passed the Freedom of Access to Information Bill on 25 August (For details click here). The Act seeks to facilitate greater access to information from the Government and its agencies at the federal, state and local government levels. The bill makes public officials accountable for interfering with records and also includes an appeal process.

African Commission on Human & Peoples' Rights meeting at its 32nd Ordinary Session, in Banjul, Gambia, from 17-23 October 2002 considered and adopted the Draft Declaration on the Principles of the Freedom of Expression in Africa. Commonwealth Parliamentarians also met in Ghana from July 9-14 2004 and issued "Recommendations for Transparent Governance" aimed at promoting freedom of information. The recommendations called for a right of access, government obligation to publish information, an overriding of secrecy laws and improved records management. Thus, Ghana has had enough meetings and conferences on FOIA to consider enacting a law to this effect. Geographical and population wise Nigeria and South Africa is bigger than Ghana. How come Nigeria and South Africa have passed the bill into law but Ghana is still talking? Is there a motivating factor?

Even though some work has been done in Ghana, it is not nearly enough. Under the auspices of CHRI, Ghana formed a coalition on right to information whose members were drawn from the National Media Commission, religious bodies, non-governmental organizations, Ghana Bar Association and journalists. The coalition has been meeting since 2002 to brainstorm on direction of its advocacy and to exchange information on the issue and has since been trying to collate ideas from its various seminars. The reports indicate that a series of regional seminars sponsored by the British Council have been held. Some of the seminars targeted a specific audience such as one held in Accra for religious leaders, and another for Trades Union Congress members. Following these, there were a series of conferences for the general public in various regions around Ghana and the reports show that attendance was good with approximately seventy people at every seminar, with hugely varying backgrounds. The seminars were held in areas accessible to a significant number of the Ghanaian population. As of now there have been seminars in all of the 10 geographical regions of Ghana. We have had enough of the seminars and talking. At this point action is what we need pass the law.

Thanks to FOIA, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in Nigeria can showcase the World Bank report compiled in 1999 on a list of Nigeria funds by depositors in four Western countries and efforts are under way to repatriate the looted money back to Nigeria.The result in Nigeria alone indicates that at least past rulers have stolen and deposited in foreign banks or misused $407 (or £225 billion). That is as much as all the western aid given to Africa in almost four decades. The stolen fortune tallies almost exactly with the £220 billion of western aid given to Africa between 1960 and 1997. That amounted to six times the American help given to post-war Europe under the Marshall Plan. British aid for Africa totaled £720 million last year. If that sum was spent annually for the next three centuries, it would cover the cost of Nigeria's looting. The looting of Africa's most populous country amounted to a sum equivalent to 300 years of British aid for the continent (FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON, June 24, 1999).

What is Ghana government waiting for? Information is generated with public money by public servants paid out of public funds. Therefore, it cannot be unreasonably kept from citizens. As seen in the case of Nigeria, the right to access information acts as a source of light to be shone on the murky deals and shady transactions that litter corrupt governments. It enables civil society and especially the media to peel back the layers of bureaucratic red tape and political sleight of hand and get to the 'hard facts.' Importantly, information belongs not to the state, the government of the day or civil servants, but to the public.

A sound access regime in Ghana would provide a framework within which the media can seek, receive and impart essential public records/information accurately and is as much in the interests of government as it is of the people. Officials do not create information for their own benefit alone, but for the benefit of the public they serve, as part of the legitimate and routine discharge of the government's duties. The right to information lays out the foundation upon which to build good governance, transparency, accountability and participation and to eliminate the corruption and official dishonesty that plague our democracy. As such, FOIA should be embraced as much by the hardheaded Ghanaian economist as by the high-minded Ghanaian political reformer.

Ghana Leadership Union (GLU) is determined to test this in court if parliament fails to enact a freedom of information act by 2006

Okyere Bonna, Secretary, Ghana Leadership Union, Inc. (NGO) www.GhanaLeadership.com Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Okyere Bonna & Bless Berchie
Okyere Bonna & Bless Berchie, © 2005

The author has 33 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: OkyereBonnaBlessBerchie

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