|Exec. Dir. POS Foundation|
The Executive Director of POS Foundation Jonathan Osei Owusu, has urged the current Committees on Communications; and the Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs of Ghana’s parliament, not to treat the RTI Bill before them with the same lukewarm attitude portrayed by their predecessors.
According to him, parliament should put in place mechanisms to check work and bills assigned to various parliamentary committees and where a Committee failed to meet its mandate, members should be made to pay for all cost incurred during their sittings on the particular work and possibly deduct it from their ex-gratia before that parliament’s term elapse.
He charged journalists to continue with the advocacy because the development of a country was not in the hands of the privilege few, in whose hands citizens have entrusted or given their mandate to govern them, but that they also have a responsibility to meet legislators and policy makers, to voice out, to petition government and parliament and to support the RTI campaign for the speedy passage of the RTI Bill now for collective development.
Mr. Osei Owusu who is also a Steering Committee Member of the Right to Information Coalition made the call in Tamale during a media engagement meeting organized by the Centre for Democratic Development [CDD-Ghana] in collaboration with the RTI Coalition on the theme: “Ghana Needs the Right To Information Law Now!”
He made specific reference to work that was assigned to the two Committees that involved gathering views on the Bill in six regions of the country in August 2011 through a stakeholder consultation fora in order to make positive recommendations to the floor of parliament. He disclosed that, the report of the Committees was not released or published before the dissolution of that parliament even till now.
The Right to Information Bill was drafted in 2002 to provide a legal framework that would allow people to exercise their right of access to information held by government agencies in recognition of the people’s entitlement to such information as the legitimate owners. The Bill has since gone through several reviews in the hands of both parliament and cabinet.
The RTI Coalition has been at the forefront of advocating for the passage of a RTI law since 2007 when it was formed. It has been involved in lobbying and making inputs into the draft of the RTI Bill from its inception. Through pressure [demonstrations] from the Coalition the Bill made its way to Parliament.
At the national level, the Fourth Republican Constitution of Ghana provides a clear right to information in chapter 21, and invites parliament to elaborate on the application of this right. Two decades after the inception of the constitution, Ghana is still without any RTI law.
Nonetheless, a RTI Bill was tabled before the Fifth Parliament of the Fourth Republic on 5th February, 2010. This was subsequently referred to the joint Parliamentary Select Committees on Communications; and Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs for scrutiny. Unfortunately, the bill never got passed by the 5th Parliament into a law and its term expired.
Luckily, the Minister for Information and Media Relations Mahama Ayarigah recently disclosed that Cabinet had approved the RTI Bill to parliament. But when the RTI Bill would be laid before parliament remains unknown.
A survey conducted by CDD-Ghana in June 2011 and July 2012 on accessing information from some selected government agencies, departments and ministries in the extractive industry in the Greater Accra Region revealed the difficulties media personnel encounter in accessing information in the extractive sector.
Mr. Osei Owusu, explained that, lack of access to information leave journalists open to government allegations that their stories are inaccurate and reliant on rumors and half-truths instead of facts. Thus, the new forms of Information Communication and Technology, not to forget wikileaks, he said had proved that it was better for government to put out information for the good of the public as openly as it could in order to avoid leakages and inaccurate information or information taken out of context.
Upon the several reviews that the Bill went through and even before it was passed into law, he said the Coalition raised a number of concerns with the current RTI Bill, which if not taken into consideration, would lead to the passage of an inadequate law that did not conform to international human rights standards and would rather take away citizens rights to access information.
Mr. Osei Owusu said the Coalition recognised that maximum disclosure of information was a major principle of right to information. Thus, while the current Bill provided for proactive disclosure, the Coalition thought the scope of information to be disclosed should be expanded as the more information that government disclosed, the less the requests for information from citizens.
He also said in line with the principle of maximum disclosure, the Coalition expressed concern with the exemptions in the Bill, some of which were blanket, while some were vague. While for instance the Coalition agreed that there was some information in the office of the President, Vice-President and Cabinet that might be exempted, Mr. Osei Owusu said the formulations in the current Bill seemed to exempt almost all information held in these offices and advocated that the need for information to be protected should be qualified and subject to the ‘harms test’.
The current Bill according to him, also put the Minister of Justice as the implementing agency, but the minister he observed was not independent from the Executive. Thus, Mr. Osei Owusu noted that in the view of the Coalition there was Lack of independent oversight mechanism in the Bill and need to be incorporated by reviewing the bill.
He further emphasised the need for the Bill to shorten the timelines within which information should be availed to someone making a request because it was very long. He also added that there seemed to be numerous fees levied for accessing information citing application fee; advance deposit fee; fees for the time it takes to get the information among others. In his view, all these were unnecessary fees and defeated the purpose of the right to information, stressing that the only fees that should be levied should be the actual reproduction costs of the information.