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Advocates urge Ghanaian government to improve Right to Information bill

by Nicole Baute

A coalition of NGOs says Ghana’s Right to Information bill is so flawed that it would prevent rather than encourage openness should it become law.

“The current bill is such that the first thing that you see are the exemptions,” said Mina Mensah, the Africa Region Coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “Is it a bill that’s supposed to tell us what we are not allowed, or is it a bill that’s supposed to encourage us?”

At a workshop hosted by the Economy of Ghana Network at the University of Ghana on Thursday, Mensah did not mince words. She said the bill’s blank exemptions were too broad, covering information from the president and vice-president’s offices, and national security. She took issue with the fee scheme, which could include fees for time spent gathering the information, and the fact that citizens denied information are not entitled to the reason for their refusal. She explained that the bill does not cover private bodies that could be contracted to perform government functions, which could, for example, include public roads being built by private companies. She complained that the timelines were long—it could take up to 90 days just for people to be told whether or not they could have the information, and longer to get it.

And if a request is rejected the person who made it can only appeal to the Supreme Court. “How many of us here understand the Supreme Court?” she asked. “For a common person this is a way of preventing access to information.” “We would rather not have a bill than have this particular bill,” Mensah said.

Ghana’s Right to Information bill was originally tabled in parliament in 2010, but lapsed when the government changed after the 2012 election. The bill has since been revised but not made public; is believed that only the fee scheme has changed, which worries the Coalition on the Right to Information, which considers the entire bill in desperate need of amendments.

The room was packed with journalists, NGO workers, lawyers, students, academics and others. Ironically, it seemed none of the individuals present—except the Minister of Information himself, present only for part the event—had seen the current Right to Information bill, which left cabinet three weeks ago to be presented to the attorney general’s office.

But once it returns to parliament, Minister of Information Mahama Ayariga said “anything is possible. All sorts of amendments can be introduced.”

Etse Sikanku talks about how journalists can use the Right to Information bill, at the University of Ghana on Thursday, July 25.

Etse Sikanku talks about how journalists can use the Right to Information bill, at the University of Ghana on July 25.

Ghanaians already have a basic right to information enshrined in their constitution, “subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society.”

Victor Brobbey, a researcher at the Ghana Centre of Democratic Development, said that based on this test a Right to Information law with broad exemptions would be unconstitutional. He referred to Uganda’s law, which he described as “two-thirds exemptions, one-third law” and said Ghana was in danger of going that route.

For his part, Ayariga said the bill was very important to the government and the president, and that its passage into law “would make life easier for everybody.”

He explained that information is already available to the public through court documents, parliamentary transcripts, and on government websites, for example. Ayariga argued that some exemptions are necessary; during decision-making processes, for example, government may need to keep certain information private to promote openness and frankness.

Dr. Etse Sikanku, from the University of Iowa, told the reporters in the crowd not to be discouraged. “This bill will still welcome a new era of journalism in this country,” he said.

He said Right to Information legislation would give Ghanaian journalists an opportunity to advocate for the poor and disadvantaged, and to verify their information, moving away from the “he-said she-said” journalism that is so prevalent here.

Although Ghana is a stable, democratic country, Ghanaians will not be fully enfranchised until their government agrees to become more transparent and accountable.

After all, as Mensah put it, “The Right to Information is the bedrock to all other rights that we have.”

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