Let’s ask Parliament not to rush to pass the Right to Information (RTI) bill, currently before it, as it is.
Parliament should amend many critical provisions in the bill before it is passed. As it is, if passed, the law will severely weaken citizens’ right to access information in the custody of government, state institutions and public bodies and agencies.
Indeed, it is better that we have no RTI law at all than to be handcuffed or gagged with legislation based on this bill without amendments. Civil society organisations, institutions and individuals should, therefore, respond to Parliament’s call for memoranda to persuade members of Parliament to improve the bill before they pass it.
Advocacy for the passage of a right to information law is more than 10 years old. As a result, in 2003, the NPP government prepared the first draft RTI bill to give effect to the right guaranteed in Article 21 (1) (f) of the constitution. But it was first laid before Parliament on February 5, 2010. The bill has been reviewed at least eight times, following consultations with civil society in a campaign led by the RTI Coalition, a grouping of about 80 non-governmental organisations across the country, including the TUC. In Parliament, the Select Joint Committees on Communications, and Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs were mandated to study the bill and present recommendations.
Following nationwide public consultations in July-August 2011, and a review meeting in March, 2012, the joint committees agreed that certain issues in the bill needed revision and improvement.
The RTI Coalition presented to the joint committees comprehensive proposals for amendment and improvement accordingly. In a meeting with the coalition, the joint committees endorsed the coalition’s proposals. However, the parliamentary body could not effect the amendments to the draft before the 2012 elections and the closure of parliament.
So, the bill still contains those same several provisions that require critical review to bring it in line with the spirit and democratic demands of the constitution, and with international best practice. There’s absolutely nothing new in what the government has presented to Parliament for consideration.
Nothing has changed. So, what provisions need amendment in the bill? Let’s take a look at only some of the most critical areas.
To begin with, the first principle about a democratic RTI law is that it is not a favour to the people. It is the right of every person in Ghana, whether the person is a citizen or not, as long as the person is in the country legitimately to request and receive information. The government in a democracy has the obligation to disclose information requested.
The other key issue is that because it is a fundamental right, an RTI law must have as a key pillar the principle of maximum disclosure. This means that the only information the government can justifiably refuse to disclose should be those that are necessary to protect the public interest or the rights and freedoms of other persons. The bill, as it is, fails to live up to these basic principles.
First of all, all previous governments have failed the people by not passing an RTI law, and for drafting a bill that fails to live up to these principles. The bill abandons the principle of maximum disclosure by proposing blanket exemptions on information from the Office of the President, that of the Vice President and the Cabinet.
Additionally, it makes all information held by the security agencies absolute no-go area. The bill bars citizens from access to too many areas of information that cannot be justified. Many of the exemptions are also so broadly formulated that the effect is that they take away the right to information.
Besides the problem of blanket and loosely phrased exemptions, there are many other provisions that threaten to undermine the right to information. Take, for example, the question of timely access. The principle is that when a person applies for information, the request must not be delayed unreasonably.
Meanwhile, the bill proposes so many time extensions by officials that make nonsense of the principle of timely access. Altogether, it could take an applicant 160 days from the time of applying for information to the time an official may decide to give the information – if at all. That is a total of five months and 10 days.
The law and private bodies
An RTI law concerns primarily information in the custody of government and public bodies and agencies. However, the coalition proposes that the law must cover private bodies that are funded by the public purse; or bodies that carry out activities for the public; or exploit the nation’s natural resources. It should also cover situations where persons need the information for the protection of their rights.
The bill gives to the Attorney General discretionary powers to extend the law to cover private bodies – by means of a legislative instrument.
Now, what happens if you apply for but you are refused disclosure of the information? The sector minister has power to review the decision of the officer refusing the application for disclosure. And if the minister further refuses the application, what can you do? Look at this – quite scary. The bill says, in that case, you take your appeal to – where? The Supreme Court! God Almighty!
There are many provisions in the bill that tend to undermine the fundamental right the bill is supposed to uphold and promote. Professional bodies, civil society organisations, citizens and groups of citizens must join the coalition by presenting memoranda to Parliament to demand amendments to the bill. Otherwise we face the danger of a law that rather takes away this fundamental human right.
The writer is the Co-Chairperson of the RTI Coalition.