Rights groups in Ghana on June 20, 2012 orgainsed a national conference in Accra to intensify their long campaign for the country to pass into law the long delayed Right to Information Bill which was laid before parliament in 2010.
The Conference was organised by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in collaboration with African Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) and the Ghana Coalition on the Right to Information.
The over 50 participants who attended the conference were drawn from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and elsewhere. It was addressed by prominent activists including Nana Oye Lithur, Ghana RTI Coalition, Prof. Kwame Karikari, MFWA, who chaired the meeting, Akoto Ampaw of the National Media Commission of Ghana, Maxwell Kadiri, Open Society Justice Initiative, Patrick Tumwine, Human Rights Network of Uganda (HURINET), and Alison Tilley of Open Democratic Advice Centre, South Africa.
In a communiqué adopted at the end of the conference, the participants urged Parlaiment to pass the bill before the December elections as the majority leader Cletus Avoka promised earlier this week.
Below is the communiqué:
COMMUNIQUE ISSUED AT A DAY NATIONAL STAKEHOLDERS CONFERENCE ON THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION HELD ON 20TH JUNE 2012 AT THE M-PLAZA HOTEL, ACCRA, GHANA
We members of the Steering Committee of the African Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), the Media Foundation for West Africa, the Ghana Coalition on the Right to Information, other Ghanaian civil society organizations and representatives from other African countries and beyond, meeting at a half day National Stakeholders Conference organized by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in collaboration with the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) and the Ghana Coalition on the Right to Information to deliberate on the Ghana Right to Information legislative process hereby adopt this communiqué.
The 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana recognises the right to information as a fundamental right of all persons in Ghana.
The Ghana Right to Information Bill, 2010 which seeks to provide concrete legal mechanism and procedures by which all persons can exercise and assert the right to access information in the custody of public bodies and categories of private bodies was tabled before Parliament on 5th February, 2010. It was subsequently referred to the Parliamentary Select Joint Committees on Communications, and Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs for scrutiny.
After a series of nationwide consultations which ended in August 2011 , the Joint Committee held a review meeting on the outcome of these consultations and decided that certain concerns raised by the Coalition and the general public on the content of the Bill needed to be addressed to enable the Bill adequately protect and promote the public's right to know in Ghana and also bring it into conformity with international human rights standards and best practices on the right to information.
The Ghana Right to Information coalition prepared and submitted a zero draft addressing these specific issues as follows:
All exemptions should be issue based, narrowly formulated and subject to the harm and public interest test
Under the current bill, some of the exemptions are either too broadly formulated or repetitive; others are not linked to any sufficient harm or public interest test, while others still are blanket exemptions. They thus combine to derogate from the right to information expressly guaranteed under Section 21(1)(F) of the Ghanaian Constitution and provide public officials with the justification for withholding information that otherwise ought to be disclosed in accordance with the provision of the Constitution.
2. PRIVATE BODIES AND CHIEFTAINCIES;
It is essential that certain categories of Private bodies and the institution of chieftaincy ought to be covered by the right to information law to ensure its comprehensive reach.
The substantive text of the current bill does not cover private bodies which utilize public funds, carry out public or statutory functions, provide public services or exploit natural resources of the country nor does it take into account issues of public health and safety, or how the actions and decisions of private bodies impact negatively on the rights and freedoms of individuals.. Rather it is left to the discretion of the Attorney-General by legislative instrument to extend the application of certain aspects of the Bill to the private sector, including specifying the regime of disclosure and exemptions applicable to them.
In relation to the institution of chieftaincy, the Bill simply empowers the Minister of Justice by legislative instrument to make it obligatory for the institution of chieftaincy to maintain records in good and accessible conditions to facilitate access to information. This certainly falls short of the essential requirement of the public's right to know, especially given the significant role that this institution continues to play in the lives of the average Ghanaian and decision making processes in the public sphere.
3. INDEPENDENT ENFORCEMENT ORGAN:
- An independent commission should be established to serve as oversight/regulatory body instead of the Ministry of Justice.
- Under the current bill, the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the law.
- As the Minister of Justice is an integral part of the Executive, this places him in a clear conflict of interest position. An independent commission would ensure the autonomy of the oversight body, promote public trust in the institution, transparent and accountable management and coordination of the process of ensuring effective implementation of the RTI Bill by all institutions affected by it, which in turn engenders effective public access to information in Ghana.
Fees should be limited to actual cost of reproduction and payment should not be at the time of application but rather when a decision to grant access has been made.
The fees regime under the bill is rather expensive and cumbersome. Contrary to international best practice, the time and effort taken to retrieve information is chargeable to an applicant; an applicant whose application for information is rejected is still required to pay for the time spent on working on the application; advanced deposits may be demanded and an application may be refused for failure to pay such deposit. As a result, the fees regime of the Bill constitutes a veritable obstacle to the exercise of the right to access information.
5. APPEAL PROCESS:
An aggrieved applicant should have the right to appeal to the Information Commission instead of the Supreme Court as provided for under the bill. The current appeal process can be a substantial real challenge. This is especially so as most Ghanaians are not likely to have the money, determination or resources to apply to the Supreme Court for judicial review of the refusal of an application for information.
6. TIMELY ACCESS:
- To be of value, information should be disclosed in a timely manner. The timelines for disclosure should accordingly be significantly reduced.
- Under the bill the timelines and instances where they could be extended are numerous, unreasonable and unjustifiably long. Taken cumulatively, it could result in an applicant spending almost half a year to obtain the required information. This certainly defeats one of the critical objectives of an RTI regime, which is timely access to information.
- Information is needed for specific purposes and within a specific time frame; any unnecessary delay may defeat the purpose for which the information is needed.
7. RECORDS KEEPING:
The infrastructural foundation for an effective right to information regime is a system of record creation, management, organisation and retrieval. Accordingly, the RTI Bill should impose a clear legal obligation on all bodies subject to the Bill to establish effective and efficient systems of record creation, maintenance, organisation and retrieval. Institutions affected by the Bill should also have the responsibility of training and equipping their information officers with the requisite skills to enable them adequately discharge their duties and obligations under the Bill.
8. PROACTIVE DISCLOSURE:
Public institutions hold information not for themselves but on behalf of the public and as such public bodies have a responsibility to proactively publish and disseminate information that is in their custody, in a timely manner. Failure to do so ought to be clearly penalized under the Bill as it serves to detract from the promotion and protection of the public's constitutional right to know, enshrined in Section 21(1)(F) of the Ghanaian Constitution.
9. NEED FOR ADEQUATE PROTECTION OF THE RIGHT OF DIASBLED PEOPLE AND OTHER VULNERABLE GROUPS IN THE BILL:
The provisions of the Bill that could be utilized by this category of people in the Ghanaian society to promote and protect their right to information are not far reaching enough to ensure that the right of these persons are adequately protected, hence the Committee is strongly encouraged to revisit the relevant aspects of the Bill to make them much more robust and clear.
We the participants at the National Stakeholders Conference unanimously agree that:
- The passage of a strong right to information law in Ghana will add to Ghana's credentials of being one of the shining examples of democratic practice in Africa, consolidate its democracy and also serve to spur on other African countries to pass the much-needed right to information legislation.
- Any access to information law should be consistent with the very clear provisions of Section 21(1)(F) of the 1992 constitution
- Political commitment to the right of access to information is necessary for the adoption, full implementation and enforcement of access to information legislation in Ghana;
- Equally challenging will be the process of implementation of the law to ensure that openness, transparency and ready access to information becomes fully integrated and internalized in Ghanaian political and public service culture and to this end the Executive Branch and Parliament must ensure that sufficient logistical and material resources are provided for the effective implementation of the law.
Consequently, the forum hereby endorses the following recommendations for action by the parliament of the Republic of Ghana:
1. That the Parliamentary select Joint Committee should in the overall interest of deepening democracy, transparency and accountability take urgent steps to finalize the zero draft, make the necessary amendments to the Bill suggested by the Ghanaian public and members of the RTI Coalition and present its report to the full house of Parliament.
2. That the August Parliament of the Republic of Ghana takes on board the suggested amendments to the Bill proposed in the zero draft of the Coalition and pass the Right to information Bill into law before the 5th Parliament of the Republic of Ghana lapses on 7th January 2013.
While we commend the efforts of the joint committee in ensuring public engagement and exchange of ideas on the Bill, we must emphasize that a good bill is more desirable than a rushed and mutilated bill passed into law that serves to hinder the public's right to know, rather than promote it. It is therefore necessary to take into account the views of the public and civil society to ensure that Ghana's RTI law meets international norms and standards, serves the aspirations of the Ghanaian society as well as the letter and spirit of the Ghanaian Constitution.
June 20, 2012
Media Foundation for West Africa
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
Open Society Justice Initiative
Open Democratic Advice Centre
Open Society Foundation
Africa Freedom of Information Centre
International Committee of Jurists -Kenya
International Federation of Journalists
Citizens Governance Initiative
Human Rights Advocacy Centre
Amnesty International - Ghana
Concern Health Education
Network of Women in Growth
Ghana Penticoustal and Charismatic Council
Human Rights Advocacy Centre
Youth for Action
Concerned Nima Youth
Free World Foundation
Society and Youth Development
National Union of Graduate Students