Last weekend a group of hackers in Nigeria known as the Naija Cyber Hactivists attacked Nigerian state websites and posted demands that President Goodluck Jonathan should, as promised, pass the long awaited Right to Information (RTI) Bill.
With the notable exception of Liberia, which passed a freedom of information bill last year, the RTI movement is stalling in West Africa. In Nigeria the government has been digging in its heels over legislation first tabled in 2006 whilst in Ghana the eight year fight for the RTI Bill drags on.
So why are politicians stalling over the RTI Bill? The simple answer is that it would, to coin a phrase, be like turkeys voting for Christmas. Governments have a vested interest in being the sole masters of the flow of information which can, in extreme cases, afford them the opportunity for self-enrichment under the cloak of secrecy. Political parties often pay lip service to the RTI bill whilst in opposition as it gives them the opportunity to seek disclosures that embarrass the governing party. However, more often than not, opposition parties tend to take the view that one day they may themselves be in Government and foresee that such support might return to haunt them.
The post-implementation experience of other countries with RTI acts certainly suggests that politicians have good reason to be worried about preserving their vested interests.
The United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI) is a good case in point and one with which, as a UK lawyer, I am familiar. Passed in 2000, the bill has led to a dramatic shift in the balance of power between citizen and the state. Over half a million requests were made in the first five years alone.
The parliamentary expenses scandal in the UK finds its roots in FOI requests made by journalists in 2005. True, ultimately a CD of leaked data allowed the press to discover some of the more serious – and criminal – examples of abuse. However, much of the detail – claims by MPs for mole clearance, moat cleaning, light-bulb replacement and pornographic movies – is only now in the public domain as a result of the Act and three years of journalists’ perseverence. The damning disclosures led to a wholesale reform of the parliamentary expenses regime and the establishment of an independent watchdog. Many MPs resigned as a result of the scandal, a number were prosecuted.
Furthermore, it is only as a result of the UK FOI Act that we know which big businessmen the British Prime Minister has dinner with on a regular basis, we uncover the fact that research related to climate change science was suppressed, we learn that contraceptive implants have quietly been made available to girls as young as 13 by the UK’s National Health Service and disturbingly we discover that the UK operated a clandestine torture programme in post-war Germany.
The people of other countries have also been able to hold their governments accountable as a result of RTI laws. In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Freedom of Information Act has allowed the public to discover the shocking extent of church and state negotiations over compensation for clerical abuse cases. In the US, the largest single group of freedom of information applicants is not, as one might expect, journalists but actually senior citizens. Seniors used the long-standing federal legislation to obtain copies of their benefits packages or information about Medicare prescription drug programmes. Companies use the US legislation to find out about government contracts they could bid on or what regulations were being formulated.
Looking at the uncomfortable experiences of their foreign colleagues, it is perfectly understandable why politicians in Ghana might hesitate to pass similar legislation. However, from the citizen’s perspective, those same experiences make the case for introducing the legislation all the more compelling. RTI legislation will make it easier to hold their politicians to account and allow people to exercise their individual and collective rights more effectively. Politicians must always remember that they are only ever the temporary custodians for the information they hold on trust for the people. A right to information act will, for the first time, give ordinary people the true ownership of information. As the great Kofi Annan once said, “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating”. It is now time for the politicians in Ghana to pass a strong bill, empower and liberate the people by allowing them access to their own information.
Chris Lane, Lawyer, www.chriafrica.blogspot.com
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