“Since the earliest civilised societies there has been a tug of war between the democratic and the dictatorial impulse.”--- Rick Snell, Editor FOI Review, Australia
In 4 days, which is by close of day Friday, the deadline for the public to submit memoranda on the Right to Information (RTI) Bill will be past. On Friday 30th, April 2010, it is expected that any contribution the public wants to make to the RTI Bill would have been submitted to Parliament. Parliament rescheduled the deadline from March 2nd 2010 to April 30th 2010, apparently to make more room for the general public to be aware and/or informed about the RTI Bill, so that all will have opportunity to make informed inputs into the legislative process that would lead to an enactment of a Right to Information Law in Ghana. To this end Parliament published the Bill on its website. But was this enough to raise public awareness and generate that proper popular debate needed for such a critical piece of legislation?
Initially, Parliament had indicated it will conduct a broad consultative process to engage local communities and ordinary citizens for the purpose of raising awareness on the RTI Bill and soliciting public input to its finalization. Did this happen? Will it happen? It would be recalled that when the RTI Bill was presented to Parliament by the Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) notably the Ghana National Coalition on the Right to Information (RTI Coalition) and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) raised concern on the seemingly clandestine manner in which the Bill was laid on the floor of the house. Their contention was that, not consistent with the constitutional requirement, the Bill was not properly published in the gazette for before it was introduced in Parliament. In other words, whereas the spirit of the constitutions requires the publication of the Bill (not a mere notification of its title) not less than 14 days before its presentation to Parliament, the Executive (represented by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice) did not do that. And although the Attorney General sought to justify this breach, it was more of a compromised pursuit of the issue on the part of the RTI Coalition and public apathy that killed the matter in favour of the Executive. Thus right from the initial stages, Government's reluctance to promote a well publicized Right to Information Bill.
Did Parliament expect that uploading the RTI Bill on its website alone was enough for the public to access and educate themselves on it? Or it was expected that Civil Society Organisations would take it up from there to sensitise the public on the Bill. Or the media should have taken it upon itself to lead in the public education process, moving the RTI Bill from Parliament's WebPages unto the ubiquitous radio sets in Ghana?
Now we are only a few days from the official deadline for the submission of memoranda on the RTI Bill. Yet it is not apparent that the general public is sensitized and well informed of the provisions in the draft RTI Bill. Is it not a serious matter that one of the fundamental laws on human rights is going to be soon passed by our Parliament, and yet it is not a topical issue in public debate? This Right to Information Law is what will give real power to the people. It is this Law that will oblige government to be accountable to the ordinary Ghanaian. It is this law that will give impetus to civilians' right to demand accountability from government and challenge citizens to be responsible in finding out what is happening in government and how we are all running our country. It is this Law that will truly link our acclaimed democracy to real development and help us to control corruption at all levels of public dealings. Yet there is no feeling in the air that such a legislation is in its final processing stage.
Why haven't our news papers published the full text of the Bill? Why haven't our radio stations aired it far and near so that our rural brothers and sisters who eat poverty everyday can make inputs into how this incoming law can be better designed as tool against poverty, access to voice and access to resources via access to information? Why are serial callers not interested in this issue? If we are not careful the relative apathy that seems to be welcoming the soon enactment of the Right to Information Legislation, will continue afterwards and seriously undermine the effective implementation of our future RTI Law.
If this public apathy continues it is likely the Executive, and perhaps Parliament, will have its way in maintaining the aspects of the RTI Bill that helps government to have an upper hand in the control of public information. For example, the RTI Bill, as it stands now, does not provide for an independent commission to oversee the implementation of the RTI Law when passed. It gives this responsibility to the Minister of Justice. How can an agency of the Executive be in charge of a law that is supposed to monitor government? Would it not have difficulties in being neutral in judgment?
If we expect to have a Right to Information Law that truly lives up to expectation, in making both government and citizens more responsible in translating our democracy into real development, then we must improve the public debate on the RTI Bill as it stands now. Parliament must do more to raise public interest to contribute to the content of the Bill. Media must provide prime coverage of the provisions in the draft and set an agenda for thorough public discourse for a bill that holds the key to true democracy and national development.
Kwame Mensah, A Right-based Development Journalist
Email: [email protected];
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