July 7th marked the 30th anniversary of the day Canada’s Access to Information Act received royal assent, becoming law. Within a year the law had come into full force and Canada had joined dozens of other countries committed to government transparency and press freedom. As of January 2012, 90 countries have established nationwide laws ensuring the public’s right to request and receive government-held information.
In 2000, South Africa became the first African country to pass Right to Information legislation. Since then, seven other nations, including Nigeria, Uganda and even Zimbabwe have followed suit. Although Article 21 of Chapter 5 in the 1992 Constitution of Ghana states, “All persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society,” making one of a few constitutions that guarantee a fundamental right to information, no right to information law exists.
There have, however, been attempts to adopt such a law; the latest of which is sitting motionless in Parliament. The Right to Information Bill, as it was called at the time, was first drawn up in 2003, and went through the drafting and a public consultation process that year. It became stuck in cabinet and lapsed in 2004. The next year the processes had to start again. It wasn’t until 2009 that the second attempt, the Freedom to Information Bill, was finally submitted to Cabinet. It was forwarded to parliament in March 2010, where it has remained, inert.
Such stagnation contradicts a string of political promises. During the 2008 election, the now ruling National Democratic Congress promised Ghanaians that, if elected to government, they would pass the Freedom of Information Bill as soon as possible to demonstrate a commitment to fighting corruption.
Parliament Majority Leader, Cletus Avoka, promised that before parliament rises on July 27, 2012 for a three-month recess the bill will be passed. However, he has since reneged, stating in May that “Passage of the Freedom of Information Bill was less important and for that matter, not a priority among various bills currently under consideration by Parliament for passage.”
Now, with only two weeks before a recess that will last until late October, and with only one month of parliamentary sessions left until it dissolves again for December’s election, it is clear the bill will not become law anytime soon.
“They [the government officials] have reservations about the widening transparency and the widening accountability that would come with Right to Information Legislation,” said Nana Oye Lithur, executive director of the Human Rights Advocacy Centre and the convener of the Right to Information Coalition in Ghana. The Right to Information Coalition was created in 2003 and is comprised of journalists as well as members from the National Media Commission, religious bodies, non-governmental organisations, and the Ghana Bar Association. It seeks to mobilize public support for the bill and advocate the government to expedite its passage.
“There’s just no political commitment,” she added.
This is a major problem, as activists and journalists agree Ghana needs the Freedom of Information Bill.
“I think that [the Freedom of Information bill] is a very
positive development which will go a long way to enhance the battle against corruption…it will strengthen the Ghanaian journalist to expose the many corrupt institutions that we have in this country,” said Richard Sky, the parliamentary reporter at Citi FM.
“When it comes to parliament there are so many things that are held out of the public view…once you can have access to information, information is a weapon. Once you have it, you can use it in so many ways to kill this rather monstrous institution of corruption that we have in this country,” he added.
Nana Oye Lithur agrees. The bill will empower Ghanaian journalists and citizens to demand answers and fight corruption.
“It will enhance transparency and accountability. We have serious issues with corruption…[within] every regime we have had some bribe and corruption related cases,” she said.
“Research has shown that with access to information regimes there comes a reduction in corruption… we need to ensure the little resources we have as a country are actually optimized and used to improve the lives of the people of Ghana, and not to go into a few pockets.”