NEWS COMMENTARY ON THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT 2019 (ACT 989).
After almost two decades of foot dragging, Parliament eventually passed the Right To Information Act 2019, ACT 989, which was assented to by President Akufo-Addo on May 21, 2019. However, the implementation of the law was delayed for one year, and coming into force in January 2020. In keeping with the requirements of Sections 64(3) and 77(4) of the Right to Information Act 2019 (ACT 989), the Minister for Information, Kojo Opong Nkrumah was in Parliament on Thursday, July 1, 2021, to make a statement on the implementation of the Act and also present to members, the Ministry of Information 2020 Annual Report on the implementation of RTI Act by public institutions, for the period January to December 2020, and the RTI Commission’s Report on same.
There is no doubt that the Act is a major ingredient in strengthening democracy, open governance, and sustainable development. It is also vital in the fight against corruption which has been the bane of Ghana’s development. Since the commencement of the Act in January last year, some major successes have been chalked up. At the beginning of 2020, 539 public institutions comprising 263 Ministries, Departments and Agencies and 260 Metropolitan, Municipal, District Assemblies and 16 Regional Coordinating Councils were captured in the Ministry of Information database as institutions required to implement the RTI Law within the country. The period January to December 2020 recorded 478 Information Units set up across the 539 institutions in accordance with Section 3 subsection (3b) of the Act. A total of 1,055 Officers of the Public Services were engaged to play various roles in the implementation of the RTI Act. This comprised 478 designated RTI Officers, 478 Records Officers, and 99 recruited Information Officers who were trained and resourced to facilitate the processing of requests received by the institution.
Per Section 3(1) of the RTI Act, each public institution is required to compile and publish an information manual to document the nature and scope of information that may be accessed by an applicant within that institution. According to available information, in the first year of implementation, a total of 285 public institutions were found to have complied with this requirement. A total of 219 public institutions submitted their annual reports on RTI activities within their respective institutions. An analysis of these reports revealed that eighty-five requests for information were received and processed in thirty-two public institutions. Seventy-two requests representing 85% of the total requests were granted while others were deferred, transferred, referred or declined in accordance with the Act.
Another significant milestone chalked up in the first year of implementation was the inauguration of the Governing Board of the RTI Commission by the President on 19th October 2020, in fulfilment of Section 40 of the RTI Act. The Commission serves as the oversight body for the implementation of the constitutional right of persons to access information. In as much as there is a lot to celebrate about the implementation of the Act, there equally very disturbing challenges.
From the look of things, it appears certain public institutions are in to frustrate or deny citizens their right to information. For instance, the Electoral Commission denied MP for Ashaiman, Ernest Norgbey, his request for information regarding the procurement of biometric machines. It had to take a High Court order for the EC to provide the information. In other scenarios, some public institutions try to deter applicants from seeking information by imposing exorbitant processing fees. This was the case when the Media Foundation for West Africa requested some vital information from the National Communication Authority regarding the licensing or closure of radio stations in the country. The NCA had charged the Foundation ¢2,000 as a processing fee.
It is true that the law requires certain categories of applicants to pay for the processing or reproduction of certain categories of information. However, the fees must be approved by parliament. In the case of the NCA, Parliament had not approved any fees or charges and as such the NCA used its discretion. Yes, in an earlier case, the High Court held that the failure of Parliament to fix the fees should not be the basis for denying citizens their right to information. But in using their discretion to charge applicants for information, public institutions must be reasonable. It is not surprising that the High Court in upholding the decision of the NCA to charge the Media Foundation for West Africa, slashed the amount by 25 percent.
Going forward, all public institutions must endeavor to comply with the provisions of the Right To Information Act, by having all the necessary structures in place and submitting the required documents to the relevant bodies. The phenomenon of transferring trained information officers at the various institutions must also be checked. This is very necessary in keeping institutional memory regarding the Act and its smooth implementation. One important step in the implementation of the Act will be for Parliament to approve the proposed Fees and Charges for accessing information. For the Act to be effective, there is an urgent need for intensive public education.
The impression must not be created that only journalists, Civil Society Organisations or politicians need information. Every citizen has the right to information. With the right education, individual citizens could go to their District Assemblies and for instance, demand detailed information about contracts awarded by the assemblies. It is only then that the nation can reap the full benefits of the RTI law.
BY BUBU KLINOGO, A JOURNALIST.