Accra, Oct. 14, GNA - Professor Kwame Karikari, Executive Director of the Media Foundation for West Africa, on Thursday said it was necessary that private organisations operating in the public sphere gave access to information that might be useful to citizens in the same way as the state was obliged to give access to similar information.
"If a private entrepreneur or organisation engages in any production or activity that is meant for public consumption, they affect the lives of the public. Therefore, if the rights and interests of the public require that any private entity must provide information accordingly, that must obviously be an obligation," he said when he delivered the keynote address at the second "Kalam" awards for African journalists writing on consumer interests in Accra.
Professor Karikari who was speaking on the topic: "African Journalism, Good Governance and Civil Society" explained that the absence of such obligations on the private sector in the laws served as one of the challenges facing African journalists seeking to become independent.
"Kalam" means a tool for writing. The award instituted by Consumer International (CI) is therefore to honour journalists who use their pens as a tool to promote the interests of consumers. The Africa office has recently relocated at Accra.
He said protection of public interest and promotion of consumers' rights required that the public had uninhibited access to information that was important and needed for these objectives.
"If government or businesses must keep secrets, those forbidden information must be such that citizens or the public are not harmed or deprived in any way by keeping those information secret from them." Prof. Karikari said so far, only South Africa and Uganda had laws that gave the citizen access to information held by the state and public institutions.
Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya had bills or drafts for legislation but in all cases, he said, the process had been slow enough to give the impression that the governments were hesitant to pass the access to information laws.
In the case of Ghana the latest draft has excluded from the proposals by civil society organisations the demand that private organisations which function in the public sphere give access to information they hold that may be important and useful to citizens or the public's interest or rights.
"This is not in the interest of the consumer," he said, and urged CI to join non-governmental organisations working on the Freedom of Information Bill to demand that it included the provision that gave the consumer the right of access to any information anywhere that might affect their rights and legitimate interests.
On other challenges facing journalists regarding the obligations of the state, Prof. Karikari said the government was not doing enough to protect the quality of life of the people and this posed a challenge to the media to enforce their democratic responsibility.
Giving an example of such shirking of responsibility by the state, the Professor said quite frequently, the media reported news about people dying from eating konkonte 'food prepared from dried cassava flour'.
"The story is so recurrent that we tend not any more to be alarmed. But the konkonte fatality raises very critical questions about governance and about development."
Prof. Karikari explained that the konkonte situation indicated that there was no enforcement at all by public institutions of basic hygienic and environmental standards in, for example, food processing for mass consumption.
"Along the roads, in our markets, and in communities, we dry, process and sell most of the food we eat in the dust, in the mud, or near unsanitary conditions such as gutters. We share our meals with flies, ants and other pests."
Prof. Karikari said this ought to be among the most rudimentary requirements of governance in a democratic society but they tended to be excused by the media who assisted to pound the slogan that "government cannot do everything".
Regarding the professional capacity and efficiency challenge facing journalists, Prof. Karikari said the economic and social matters that concerned and affected the consumer varied from global trade relations, African markets serving as dumping grounds and fake drugs on the markets.
He said the issues required investigative skills and examples of such professional skills were not lacking but more needed to be done. Pro. Karikari said in most cases poverty of survival had rendered the African journalist completely weak in maintaining and keeping a professional independence but the journalist was left only with their conscience to support them.
Ms Shirley Ayorkor Botwe, Deputy Minister of Information, said government was committed to the consumer having access to information and the right to be heard.
She said the government also believed in dialoguing with the civil society and believed that press freedom was important for Ghana's democracy to grow.
Three journalists from Togo and Nigeria received a laptop and 500 dollars each for articles written for the print and electronic media.