Choke on this: It’s Tuesday. We’re downtown Accra, me and a reporter, working on a story about e-waste and the domestic and international regulations that supposedly conduct it.
We want to talk to the Environmental Protection Agency, and we’ve been asking them since Friday for an interview. The public relations officer seldom answers her phone, and we weren’t able to reach her until Monday morning, when she promised us a Tuesday interview if we first filed a letter of request. Picture of diligence, that’s what we did.
So now we’re waiting in the EPA lobby, watching people fidget with cell phones or stare blankly at an afternoon action movie. Time passes like waiting for modernity in front of a sundial.
Eventually, apropos nothing especially obvious, the secretary sends us to the press rep’s third floor office, wherein a woman in a resplendent green dress apologizes for the wait and asks us our business.
Uh… the letter.
Oh. Oh, yes. The letter. She doesn’t have a copy, of course, and has to vanish again into the bureaucratic ether, eventually returning with a stamped version. The government is doing great things on e-waste, she says. Conferences and such. She’ll find us all the technical experts we need.
It’ll just take a minute.
About fifteen or twenty minutes later, she comes back, saying the building is entirely devoid of anyone who knows anything, this thanks to a technology and environment conference that just began today.
“We don’t really need technical people,” I say. “Maybe just someone with a bird’s eye understanding of the issue and your policies.”
“They’re at the conference. The best I can do is an interview next Monday afternoon.”
“That’s way past our deadline.”
“Oh. Way past your deadline.”
A silence – like those in deepest, darkest space.
“Okay, so what we’ll have to do is say in the article that despite multiple requests, the EPA was not able to provide an interview before deadline.”
Her countenance changes. “Oh, I see. Well, I won’t work with you if you’re going to threaten me. Please leave my office now.”
And away we go, off on the losing end of Ghana’s news-gathering process.
The above, however irritating, is a relatively minor example of transparency denied in a society without access-to-information legislation. Suppose you’re researching procurement or oil revenue. Are the Public Procurement and Petroleum Revenue Management acts enough? Probably not.
Ghana’s Freedom of Information Act has been in parliamentary paralysis since the John Kufuor administration unveiled it in 2002. In 2010, a year after the John Atta Mills government took over, it was introduced anew. The Joint Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs is dithering with it, saying it wants more civil society input, a process apparently beyond its ken.
Among neighbours, Ghana is a bit of a laggard. Liberia passed its own legislation last year, making it a pioneer in West Africa. Nigeria followed suit early last month, and Sierra Leone is poised to do the same. Niger has an access-to-documents law coming into effect at the end of August, and South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Angola, and Zimbabwe all have similar legislation.
Of course, passing the law isn’t the same as enforcing it. Many of the above nations have serious hurdles between their citizens and information that should be public.
Still, getting the laws in place is a vital first step. Problems can be dealt with as they arise – kind of like, say, last winter’s RCMP probe against a shifty Government of Canada staffer who withheld documents from the press.