The Freedom of Information Coalition, Ghana, a civil society group, on Wednesday called on the government to accelerate the passage of the Right to Information Bill and honour its promise to Ghanaians and the international community.
The Coalition said it believed strongly that some challenges, though apparently insurmountable, could be overcome overtime but could not be a pre-condition for the passage of a fundamental right, which is the very essence of good governance and adherence to the principles of accountability, transparency, integrity, responsiveness, effective participation, the rule of law and human rights.
A statement signed in Accra by Nana Oye Lithur for the Coalition noted that various government officials had made comments expressing concern about calls for accelerating the passage of the Bill.
These comments, the Coalition said, had generated uncertainties and confirmed the Government's new position on the matter.
“It has become apparent that government now believes that the building of a national information management system and the promotion of a proper record keeping culture is a pre-condition to fulfilling its mandate under Article 21(f) of the 1992 Constitution.
“It guarantees that all persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as necessary for a democratic society.”
The Coalition said these provisions were deep rooted in the African Union Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which expressly called for the right to information to be protected by laws.
“In addition to these obligations, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of which Ghana is state party, states that 'Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.'”
This included freedom to hold information without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers, it said.
The Coalition said information generated by the Government of Ghana in the name of the people of Ghana belongs to the people of Ghana.
“Therefore public information, which is, any information generated by a public officer or private person in the cause of discharging a public duty should first and foremost be free unless it is lawfully exempted as are necessary in a democratic society.”
It noted that in contrast, public officials under various legislations are under oaths of secrecy not to disclose information unless they were authorized to do so.
“This culture of silence that exists in all facets of public life impedes and undermines citizens' ability to discharge their constitutional duty to hold government to account.
“In that respect, legislation is required as a first step to promote a new regime of disclosure and reorient public officers to give access to information unless lawfully exempted.”
The Coalition said without “a clear legal burden placed on the public officer to disclose information” he/she would continue to deny the citizen's access to information even with the best information management system in place.
It said there were several legislative alternatives to deal with anticipated implementation challenges and cited the case of the Persons with Disability Act, where a moratorium was applied to address the challenge of making public buildings disability friendly.
It also referred to the Representation of the Peoples' Amendment Law where government took the policy that it had a duty to facilitate the full realization of a citizen's right to vote and ceded its implementation to the Electoral Commission.
“In many instances it is the legislation that determines the parameters for implementation and not the other way round, therefore it is misplaced for government to begin to retreat on its promises to Ghanaians at the first sign of implementation challenges.”
The Coalition said it conceded that the full implementation of a credible Freedom of Information Bill would incur a substantial financial burden on government.
However, it said, Ghanaians were not expecting that the Government could accomplish this overnight.
It said the case study of the United Kingdom's experiences in legislating and implementing the legislation was instructive in alerting us to the pitfalls in implementation.
However, it said it doubted whether the citizens of the United Kingdom regretted passing the law early and waiting for five years later for full implementation.