The Right to Information: A Building Block of Democracy [An African Election]

What does it mean when citizens have the right to information? For a democracy to function, citizens must be able to make informed decisions, both in their daily lives as well as at the ballot box. As Ghana approaches its election season, the debates around transparency and access are at an all time high — but none is more watched than the Right to Information Bill (the RTI for short).

Democracy is a very simple concept with a very complicated execution. The creation and continuation of democracy is normally messy – entrusting the people to be informed and active participants in a society is a challenge for nations much further along in their histories. Between decolonization, military coups, and transitioning to Democracy, Ghana finds itself on the forefront of defining a new way toward democracy.

Ghana is now tackling a major issue: ensuring transparency. For many nations on the African continent, adopting bills and laws requiring a certain level of transparency in government are a necessary step on the road to full citizen participation. The Right to Information Bill was originally introduced in 1998 and has made little progress advancing through Parliament, making it both a shining beacon of progress and frustration. An in-depth piece from Al-Jazeera on the RTI quotes Affail Monney, the vice president of the Ghana Association of Journalists, who explains:

“As we speak, nothing obliges officials to provide information which they’re holding on behalf of the very people they represent,” says Monney, who is also part of GRIC. “Corruption is the bane to our development. And many parts of government and the business cycles are shrouded in secrecy.”

The World Bank supports a broader mission of Access to Information (ATI) across various African nations. The movement continues to gain steam. But the devil is in the details with this bill, and much of the debate in Parliament is over how the bill would be applied.  Transparency in government is a lofty principle, but one that most governments shy away from. The United States passed their Freedom of Information Act back in the 1960s, but are still plagued with charges of cumbersome processes and the stonewalling of information.

Ghana faces a similar battle –already, some of the hotly debated questions revolve around the responsibility of governmental powers.  How many days constitute a reasonable response to the request?  What does the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice have to say about the text?  What kind of costs are associated with distributing information, and who should determine what is reasonable?

Gabriel Gbiel Benarkuu, Brong-Ahafo Regional Coordinator of the Coalition for the RTI, explained to Modern Ghana:

“What politicians fail to see is that an effective right to information provides an enhanced and enabling climate for the full realization of other fundamental human rights. The right to information is rightly connected to the right to shelter, water and basic infrastructure and the right to development as a whole”, Mr. Benarkuu stated.

More the fourteen years after its proposal, the bill still waits for its day in the sun. While the current Parliament stated their intention to pass the bill, government officials are content to move the needle on progress slowly.

The RTI could be pushed to the backburner yet again: elections are looming, and Parliamentarian terms end in January of 2013. Many activists see grassroots support as the only way the bill will gain enough traction–here’s to hoping it remains a major campaign issue for all the parties.

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