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Feature Article of Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Columnist: Kuunifaa, Cletus D

Parliament Must Pass the Right to Information (RTI) Bill

“Tweaa” Parliament Must Pass the Right to Information (RTI) Bill

By Cletus D Kuunifaa

James Madison once pontificated: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or, perhaps both” (1822). Whether this aphorism has measured up to expectation and stood the test of democracy in Ghana remains to be investigated.

But one sure thing is that the right to information is a fundamental human right and must not be toyed with by our clueless legislators. Parliament ought to have known better that good laws, good policies translate into good politics. And from all indications, Ghanaians are disappointed at their inability to pass the bill into law as yet.
Why should parliament be cajoling with our fundamental human rights? Don’t they get it that a good Right to Information law, it is argued, would enhance the capacity of government to develop and meet citizen’s demands for transparency, accountability, and good governance? Yet, are these positive gains elusive for Ghana as supporters of the bill continue to rally under rights coalition groups of civil societies, pressure groups, and nongovernmental organizations to press for action and keep pressure on you (Parliament) to pass the bill into law?
How much education and/or advocacy do you “tweaa” parliamentarians still need to pass this bill into law? Are you (Parliamentarians) even cognizant of the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is generally considered to be the flagship statement of international human rights, binding on all states as a matter of customary international law? Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees not only the right to freedom of speech, but also the right to information, in the following terms: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression: this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/Introduction.aspx).
And the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Ghana ratified in September 2000, guarantees the right to information in similar terms, providing: “Every one shall have the right to freedom of expression: this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICCPR). The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union (AU) have similar provisions guaranteeing our right to information.
While these international and constitutional obligations are binding on governments to adopt and implement for the benefit of their citizens, it is unclear if these international and constitutional obligations are being adhered to in Ghana. Even if, our parliamentarians are clueless regarding this, how clueless could they have become to ignore such a pertinent issue of Right to Information (RTI) which first reared its head in the Ghanaian public discourse since in1999? Are they not aware that by 2003, the government had already drafted the first RTI bill to operationalize the constitutional right to information under article 21(1) f of the 1992 constitution which states, “All persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society?”
This provision would suggest that Ghana has accepted, as a constitutional matter, the right to information enshrined in the above international texts, and to all intent and purposes, the bill, when passed, aims to consolidate the rights of journalists and the public to access information from government officials and public institutions without hindrance.
The Right to Information law in some countries has been tried and tested regarding the creation and distribution of information. Ghana is yet to follow the examples of these countries and experience the potential benefits that come along with its passage. Should the Right to Information Law be passed, it would surely help meet the information needs of the people so that citizens can be fully and properly informed of how the business of government is being run and make useful contributions for effective development. So, why Parliament is delaying on this crucial matter? The passage of this bill is rather slow given parliament’s lackadaisical approach and the lack of action thereof in the pursuit of this bill. Could the cold feet approach adopted by parliament stem from the realization of how powerful an FOI bill can be in Ghana? Are the Parliamentarians so weary of the bill that they don’t want to pass it knowing the repercussions it will have on them in becoming law?
Parliamentarians must remember what Thomas Freidman (1999), a New York Times International Affairs Correspondent said, “Governments that try to control information are fighting a losing battle and if they bother trying, will face exorbitant costs.”
Hence, Parliament should move and not fumble with the ball in their court.
Cletus D. Kuunifaa, Long Island University, LIU Post, New York. Can be contacted at dipnibe@yahoo.com or Follow him on twitter @ckuunifaa

Reference
Epilogue: Securing the Republic (1822). James Madison to W.T. Barry. Chapter 18 Document
35, 4 Aug, 1822 9:103-9

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