Accra, June 12, GNA – The Right to Information (RTI) Action Campaign has kicked against some portions of the RTI Bill, currently before Parliament.
According to the Campaign, passing the Bill into law with clauses such as 13, which provides a blanket exemption, inconsistent with the Bill, and would amount to a “Denial of Information Law”.
The RTI Action Campaign raised the red flag on Tuesday at a press conference, which was addressed by Dr Kojo Asante, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) – Ghana.
The press conference was held to highlight persisting flaws in the RTI Bill, 2018, following the laying of a report before Parliament on the Bill by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs on May 23 and the subsequent second reading of the Bill on June 7.
Dr Asante said the Right to Information was guaranteed under the 1992 Constitution in Article 21 (1) (f); adding that, in a democracy, it means that information collected by public institutions were collected on behalf of citizens and should be made accessible to them.
“That is why any good RTI law emphasises the principle of maximum and proactive disclosure. However, it is recognised that in certain circumstances, it will be useful not to disclose information,” he said.
“There are two main limitations provided by the Constitution, and they are very specific – public interest, including national security and public health, and privacy,” he added.
Dr Asante said to satisfy the principle of clarity, narrowness and specificity required for any limitation to the Right to Information; stating that, the Bill provides exemptions in relation to information at the Presidency, Cabinet, international relations, law enforcement, defence and privacy.
“However, after providing this elaborate limitation to our human rights then in Clause 13, it proceeds to provide a blanket exemption for information held by public institutions,” he said.
On internal working information of public institutions, Clause 13 (1) states “Information is exempt from disclosure which, if disclosed would reveal: (a) an opinion, an advice, a report or a recommendation prepared or recorded or (b) a consultation or a deliberation held in the course of or for the purpose of making a decision in the public service or a public institution and which can reasonably be expected to frustrate or inhibit the candid and deliberative process of a public institution or between public institutions.”
Clause 13 goes on to state under sub clause two that if information was already public, as a basis of a public policy or contains statistical information, then the information is exempted.
Dr Asante said this provision, if kept, fundamentally undermines the entirety of the Bill; declaring that “first, the rationale for excluding such basic information is outside of the limitations that the Constitution provides (public interest including national security and public health and privacy)”.
“Secondly, the practical effect of Clause 13 is that almost all documents in the public service will become exempt information. Memos, advice and evaluations are at the core of the propriety of decision making in public institutions.”
He said: “In fact, if you keep Clause 13, you can delete all public interest exemptions currently in the Bill because they become redundant”.
He explained that Clause 13 thus provides a blanket exemption, which was inconsistent with the Bill itself, which says exemptions must be narrow and specific relating to the public interest imperative and protection of privacy; stating that “this is untenable and must be deleted”.
“It has been argued that Clause 17, which provides for a harms test, is sufficient to cure this problem. It does not. The harms test is the last resort where information that is exempt under law can be disclosed because that benefits of disclosure outweigh the harm that non-disclosure will,” he said.
Clause 12 states that information obtained from a tax return or gathered for the purpose of determining tax liability was exempt information.
The RTI Action Campaign also asked for the deletion of Clause 12 because the genuine objective of the Clause was to protect tax information, which was already provided for in Clause 16 under Disclosure of Personal Matters, which includes information likely to reveal “confidential professional, commercial or financial affairs”.
“Passing a credible law that would facilitate the effective participation of citizens in the affairs of state, facilitates the welfare of citizens and promoting transparency will only inure to the benefit of all,” Dr Asante reminded the Members of Parliament.