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Opinions Thu, 2 Jan 2020

Right to Information Act effective today: What does it mean?

There are many who have for a long time thought of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, Act 989, as the law that will give Ghanaians the right to access information in public institutions, thereby holding public officers accountable.

Several others have also understood it to mean that it will give journalists and the media unfettered access to information they require from public offices for their reportage. But is that really what the RTI is?

Much as these understandings of the RTI are not entirely way off, they are either inadequate or too simplistic in capturing the actual crux of the RTI.

Right to information

First and foremost, note that it is not the RTI which gives Ghanaians the right to information: that right has already been provided for and guaranteed under Article 21 (1)(f) of the 1992 Constitution where it states, “all persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society”.

What the RTI Act however does is that it provides the framework for the processes, procedures and structures that are required for the access to information from public institutions. (NB; The Information Minister may in consultation with the Board extend the application of the RTI to the private sector).

The Act, therefore, actualises Article 21 (1)(f) by making it clearer and easier for people to request for and receive information from public institutions in the country.

Journalists, like other citizens, therefore source their right to information “subject to such qualifications and laws” from the 1992 Constitution.

In the light of the above explanation it will not be accurate to say the right to information of Ghanaians is grounded in the RTI, neither will it be right to suggest that journalists will have unrestricted access to information since the constitution places a caveat of that right.

Following from the caveat provided in Article 21 (1) (f), it is thus not surprising that the RTI in sections 5-17 has exempted some 18 categories of information that cannot be accessed (will be discussed in later articles) for various reasons including public safety, state security, and national interest. What this means is that citizens including journalists will be restricted from accessing information that falls with these categories.

Access procedure (Section 18-22)

With the RTI coming into effect today, January 2, 2020, what it means is that any Ghanaian aged 18 and above can apply for information from any public office in accordance with the sections 18-22. The summary of these sections requires an applicant to apply in writing to the institution indicating the information required, the form in which it is required, the applicant’s particulars including address to receive the information and the capacity of the applicant. Oral requests of illiterates and persons with disabilities are required to be reduced into writing with the help of an information officer at the institution.

The good thing is that subsection 3 of section 1 allows applicants to request for information without stating any reasons. However, if the applicant wants the information urgently, they are required under subsection 4 of section 1 to state the reason for the urgency.

Meanwhile, ahead of today’s kick-off, the Ministry of Information engaged stakeholders including Chief Directors of Public Institutions on the operationalisation of the Act as well as considered interim measures for challenges that may arise. Consequently, the ministry has summarised the procedure for requesting information as shown below.



What this means is that if an application is sent today, other things being equal, the applicant should get a response latest by Saturday, January 4, if the information requested for has to do with safeguarding the life or liberty of a person. In the case of other information, the applicant should get a response latest by Thursday, January 16. Perhaps someone should give it a shot.

Refusal of access (Section 27)

While Ghanaians are at liberty to request for any information as long as it is not exempt information, the institution from which the information is requested under section 27 reserves the right to deny the applicant access if they deem the application to be “manifestly frivolous or vexatious”. In an event where an institution refuses to grant access for any of the reasons specified under this section, it is required to notify the applicant in writing the reason(s) for the refusal.

Right of Review/Appeal (Sections 31-39)

When an applicant is refused access to information by a public institution to which they have duly applied, the aggrieved applicant has the right under sections 31-39 to apply for a review of the decision. An aggrieved applicant can appeal to the head of the institution, and subsequently to the Right to Information Commission and the High Court as long as they are not satisfied. The review procedure is provided for in sections 65-68.

Conclusion

For a law that has taken more than two decades to come into being, it has been a long time coming and now that it is here, expectations are obviously high. But questions still remain, whether or not the RTI will serve the needs of Ghanaians exactly the way they want it. It may be early days yet to say, but keep an eye on this space as I try to breakdown the Act into consumable morsels as well as update you on events on the RTI as they unfold.

Footnotes

The over two-decades-old Right to Information Bill was finally passed by the 7th Parliament of the 4th Republic on March 26, 2019, and was eventually assented to by the President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo on May 21, 2019. It was however scheduled to be implemented beginning January 2020 so that it could be captured in the 2020 budget. A parliamentary research estimates that the implementation of the bill will cost the nation GH?750 million in 5 years: an average of GH?150 million annually.

Columnist: P. D Wedam
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