“The great democratizing power of information has given us all the chance to effect change and alleviate poverty in ways we cannot even imagine today. Our task…is to make that change real for those in need, wherever they may be. With information on our side, with knowledge a potential for all, the path to poverty can be reversed.” --Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General
“In itself, the issue of access to information does not have a natural constituency. What is required is to connect the issue with peoples' daily pressing concerns, and ensure that people see their right to information in the broader context of their right to development.”-- John Samuel
Our Parliament has extended the date for the public to submit memoranda on the Right to Information (RTI) Bill to 30th April 2010. This might have been partly prompted by the concern shown by civil society that the initial deadline of 2nd March 2010 was too short for the public to make any effective input of the legal processing of such an important bill, especially when the Bill was for a long time not officially available to the public as required by law. The significance of the RTI Bill lies in its relevance to national development at all levels—its impact on individuals' wellbeing, development of local communities, effectiveness of district assemblies and overall national progress towards freedom, justice and prosperity.
Relevance to our Democracy: Democracy is the freedom of access to trade in the market place of ideas. It is more than just being able to vote on election day. For our country to benefit from this trade of ideas, the traders, that is the citizens, should have quality goods. Quality ideas come from good, true information. Access to official public information equips citizens to make productive contributions to national discourses. For example, if we the citizens have access to information regarding the environmental impact of oil exploration and how ready our country is to mitigate this effect on the environment, we will be in the position to contribute ideas regarding whether or not to start commercial oil drilling this year or wait till we have at least the minimum environmental readiness. Democracy is not just a linear multiplicity of media, where numerous radio and TV stations concentrated in a few powerful hands often with political links, have the freedom to air all day the prejudices and biases of little-informed journalists and serial callers. Productive democracy thrives on productive information. And productive information is the official public information relating to the business of government. A good Right to Information Law should not only make such information available, but more, make it accessible to citizens; including that majority of citizens in rural and vulnerable communities. Access to information is good for a productive democracy.
Relevance to Development Information is means to an end. The purpose of knowledge is development. When the RTI Bill is passed into law, it will facilitate the provision of dependable information on the true state of the nation. Facts and figures on Health Education, Agriculture and food security, trade and industry, national revenue and expenditure, security and international relations, inter alia, will be available (and should be made accessible) to the public. The RTI Law will mandate any citizen to know, for example, how many health facilities are adequately equipped and practically accessible to rural communities and how much of the national health budget is spent on actual health services rather than on salaries of workers whose productivity is neither measured nor monitored. In the Education Sector, we need official government information on what happens to the over 40% of our students who do not have access to secondary school after their Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). What is the official government information on the status of our Technical/ Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Institutions and the quantity and quality of trainees they produce? The RTI Law will help us know what steps government needs to take in order to make our state institutions for functional and responsive to national development. We can get official government information on how contracts are awarded and why our roads don't last long enough. Information is power.
Relevance to Transparency, Corruption and Accountability
The RTI Law would make it possible for any citizen to be aware of what is happening within government. It would open government up to public view. There will be less room to conceal information from the public. Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) including Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) would be charged to make known their mandates, roles and responsibilities. This will make it possible for the public to see what these institutions do and how they (the public) can rightfully demand services from these government institutions. This Law will open up the books so that the public and citizens can have access to processes, procedures and decisions relating to the functions of government agencies. This is good. It relieves civil and public servants from the stress of hiding information! Transparency also helps in establishing how much we can expect from public institutions and helps to avoid undue demands from the public. If everybody knows what is happening, there will be less questions and strife. A good RTI Law will motivate state officials to disclose how they are responding to their state responsibilities. It will also motivate officials to be honest about their dealings, knowing that all is before the public eye.
The Right to Information Law will provide a strong incentive against corruption. It will scare off corrupt officials. It may not change those who have chosen to be corrupt, but it will help to expose them and deter others. Today, in our country and probably in many other places, a major challenge in the fight against corruption is the availability of evidence. Governments respond to demands for the prosecution of perceived corrupt officials by claiming a lack of evidence. Lack of evidence actually means lack of information. When we pass our RTI Bill into law it will help citizens and journalists to access official information that might help in detecting and/or prosecuting corruption. The Law will seek to prevent the destruction of documents so that those caught burning official documents can be brought to book.
Conclusion: Given this crucial relevance of the Right to Information Bill, Parliament should endeavor to honour its promise to undertake an elaborate public sensitization and consultations before passing the RTI Bill into law. And when passed into Law, Government should ensure that there is adequate infrastructure to support effective implementation of this all important law. It will then be the responsibility of citizens to test and utilise its provisions.
By E. Kwame Mensah, a Right-based Development Journalist.
Author's Contact: Tel: 0242-603183; Email: [email protected]
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