|Ghana's National Democratic Congress, which came to power in 2009, has reintroduced a right-to-information bill [EPA]
Wood already touched by fire, goes an old Ashanti adage, is not hard to set alight. The culture is thick with that kind of wisdom, and this particular proverb pays tribute to the natural drive of effort, ideas, and change.
It’s a sentiment that falls flat in the Parliament of Ghana, where the Right to Information Bill (RTI) has meandered through eight years of fire retardant administered by two successive governments.
“No justifiable reason has been given to explain why since 2003 or 2002, when the fist bill was drafted, we still have not had the bill passed into law,” says Akoto Ampaw, a lawyer with the Ghana Right to Information Coalition (GRIC).
The original draft was tabled by John Kufuor’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) administration early in the millennium. Despite two terms of NPP governance, it was never made into law. In 2009, after a tense electoral race, John Atta Mills’ National Democratic Congress (NDC) took power. They’ve since reintroduced the bill, but, as with a slew of other legislation, it’s bogged down in committee. Meanwhile, from the sidelines, civil society is seriously concerned with some of the draft provisions.
A series of public consultations wrapped up this summer, and the government said it can push the bill into law before the end of the year, a claim that the opposition dismisses as unrealistic. More likely, says the NPP, is a 2012 passage, just in time for the next general elections.
The stakes are high. Affail Monney is the vice president of the Ghana Association of Journalists and the head of news and current affairs with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. He says that a robust bill wouldn’t just benefit the general public - it could also greatly empower the press; this, in a country that bounces around the midfield of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
“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.”
Effective RTI could shed light on Ghana’s burgeoning oil and gas industry. It could allow journalists greater access to the country’s mining industry, as well as its timber and cocoa sectors. But the current draft, warns Ampaw, may only make the situation worse.
“We have raised at least some ten or so key problems that we think ought to be reviewed with respect to the bill, and one of them of course is the timeline,” he says.
Unlike Nigeria’s recent RTI bill, which requires the government to respond to access requests within seven days, Ghana is proposing a 21-day deliberation period, after which an information officer can request further extensions, for up to three months. It’s a situation the GRIC considers unworkable.
The group is also describing the proposed fees as cumbersome and prohibitive. One draft clause allows the minister of justice to determine costs for the dissemination of information, while subsequent clauses spell out fees for research time, computer access, preparation of information, and postage.
Still another issue is exemptions. Both the offices of the president and vice president are exempt from the bill’s provisions. Cabinet enjoys an exemption as well, and all three bodies would be able to unilaterally decide whether or not they want to release information. The bill couldn’t touch them.
GRIC is also contesting the proposed involvement of the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General, which would implement the bill.
“The man is accountable to government, who appointed him, and so he is obliged to toe the line of government, or sing the tune of the government who appointed him,” says Monney.
The justice minister would also sit in on Supreme Court hearings for any member of the public or media who appeals a refusal. The whole process, says GRIC, is fraught with complications.
“When there is an application for review and the minister rejects the application, your only next resort is the Supreme Court,” says Ampaw. “That will virtually cut out more than 90 per cent of the population who will not have the resources, the time and the courage to go to the Supreme Court. So that is the way of denying them their ability to challenge any arbitrary decision of the minister.”
During public consultation, GRIC put all these issues before government. According to NDC Deputy Majority Leader Rashid Pelpuo, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs and Communication, which is tasked with overseeing the bill, will prepare a report on civil society’s recommendations.
“If it goes to Parliament and Parliament thinks the same way, it will go into the bill,” he says. “It’s all about Parliament.”
In 2000, South Africa was the first African country to pass RTI legislation. Its bill is often celebrated, not least because it’s overseen by an arms-length human rights commission. Other countries have followed suit, though results have been mixed. In Zimbabwe, for example, a 2002 bill was seen more as a tool to suppress journalists critical of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government. Uganda, Guinea, Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, and Liberia all have legislation, and other countries, like Sierra Leone, are penning drafts.
The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), a Uganda-based group that monitors RTI on the continent, says the pace in Africa has been too slow, even if recent passages like those in Nigeria and Liberia are encouraging.
“Ghana has never come this close to adopting an access to information law, and clearly a law would strengthen Ghana’s democratic credentials in Africa and the rest of the world,” says AFIC coordinator Gilbert Sendugwa in an email. “Some of the clauses are troubling, but we trust that inputs from ongoing consultations will cure this problem if parliament listens to the voices of ordinary citizens.”
Paul Carlucci has been published in the Vancouver Review, Adbusters, NOW Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and The Toronto Star.
William Yaw Owusu is a journalist with The Daily Guide in Ghana.