By Afedzi Abdullah
After over two decades of considerable legislative tussles and exhaustive political scrutiny, Ghana’s Right to Information (RTI) Bill was passed on March 26, 2019, by the country’s parliament. The president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo subsequently assented it into law on May 21, 2019, with much expectation and enthusiasm from the people of Ghana.
The RTI law is expected to provide for the implementation of the constitutional right to information held by any public institution and to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public affairs.
Its passage also came as good news to members of civil society and other corruption fighters, as they believed that the law was a critical tool in the fight against corruption in the country.
The government, as part of efforts to fully operationalise the law, established the RTI commission and subsequently set up the RTI secretariat to provide backend support to the designated RTI officers at the ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) in the public sector.
Ghana’s Information Minister, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah also encouraged journalists to test the system and use the RTI law to demand information.
The efforts of Ghana’s government are commendable however, some journalists and civil society organisations have raised concerns that they still face the challenge of accessing information.
According to them, some public institutions such as the Ghana Police Service, Ghana Health Services and other institutions are fond of withholding information and intimidating journalists whenever they visit their offices for information.
They said the new law, in effect, restricts access to information at the country’s presidency and exempts information relating to some government institutions, which critics described as a fly in the face of transparency.
In all, 13 categories of information concerning key executive government actors are listed as exempt in the new law, including information prepared for the president, vice president, or cabinet.
Others are information relating to law enforcement and public safety, matters affecting international relations and security of the state, and information relating to economic or any other interest.
Aside from this, education on the law has been very low and many people including journalists themselves did not know how to use it to secure information.
This is against the backdrop that access to information is a vital requirement in a democratic dispensation.
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Last year, the RTI Coalition Ghana, a pressure group that campaigned for the passage of the law issued a statement to express its disappointment about the implementation of the new law.
The Coalition noted with concern that while some public institutions continued to deny access with flimsy excuses such as the non-existence of basic structures to aid the release of information, many other public institutions were reluctant and completely ignored requests made to them for information.
On Monday, February 3, 2020, Member of Parliament (MP) for Ashaiman, Ernest Henry Norgbey wrote to the Electoral Commission (EC) and requested information on the procurement procedure used by the commission to hire the services of two consultants who were instrumental in the EC’s purchase of a new Biometric Voter Management System but was turned down.
The lawmaker proceeded to court and it took the High Court to order the EC to provide the requested information, even at this point, at an exorbitant fee of GhC 1,500.00 (about US $245).
The question then is, how many people will have the courage to pursue this if they request information and are turned down or are unable to afford to pay such an amount for information.
In June this year, distinguished Ghanaian investigative journalist, Manasseh Azure Awuni spoke at a media forum on the right to information, investigative journalism, and the fight against corruption organised by the Media Foundation for West Africa in Accra.
At the forum, he shared the frustrations journalists in Ghana face in accessing information and lamented the rate at which information institutions are delayed in releasing information.
This, he said, made the work of the journalist very difficult.
“We are so much interested in getting the right information but the reality on the ground is what deters people. The frustration is real and I am very happy the RTI commission is here and if this law will make an impact, then the commission will have to be patriotic because I know of state institutions that are set up to defend the regime and not the citizens and the republic and I am only hoping that this commission will be different,” he said
“I have the opportunity to test this law and I have realised that some of these institutions are notorious for not even minding you,” he added.
Awuni encouraged fellow journalists to explore the law and test it by requesting information to be able to tell the story as it is.
He further admonished the RTI Commission to make efforts in ensuring that institutions made information readily available without shelving them.
“The problem with this country is that people are averse to releasing information, especially public officials,” said Elvis Darko, editor of the Finder Newspaper and member of the Media Coalition for RTI.
“It is an irony, this is supposed to be a law that allows for information flow but generally people do not have information on the law so you cannot really say they are going to take advantage of it,” noted a journalist with the state media who preferred to be anonymous.
“Access to information is a critical component of the journalism profession, the current situation calls for further action to be taken,” he added.
“I tried accessing information using the RTI law at a district assembly in January and I have since not been fed with the information I requested.”
“I filled the RTI form and was told I will be contacted. I was then contacted somewhere in April [and told] that I will be the one to pay for the information and to date, I have not heard anything. Follow-ups didn’t help so I stopped,” another journalist said in frustration.
“No one, especially workers in government agencies, is willing to give out information,” he added.
Reporting for this story was supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab Africa.