Mr. Ahiaku is a news producer with a local radio station. He needs some information from a case in court to proceed with a story he is working on. He applies to the court for a copy of the documents containing that information but the clerk denies him, claiming that he (Ahiaku) is not allowed to have a copy the document he has requested. Ahiaku knows he is allowed access to the document based on the fact that he is Ghanaian, but more importantly because it is a public case and the issues are in the interest of the public. What does he do?
Every Ghanaian has the right to information that they seek subject to certain qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society. The right to information, also known as freedom of information, is enshrined in the 1992 Constitution at Article 21(1)(f), which states
“all persons shall have the right to information subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society”.
This provision in the 1992 Constitution has remained untested for many years until recently when pressure groups such as Occupy Ghana and Citizen Ghana, have started invoking such rights to obtain information from government institutions.
Citizen Ghana took the exercise of this constitutional right a step further by filing an action in the Human Rights Court in Accra to request for copies of the contract relating to the branding of 116 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) buses, popularly referred to as the “Smartty’s Saga”. On 13 April 2016, the court ordered the government to make available, copies of the said contract to Citizen Ghana. The judge in delivering the judgment cited Article 41(f) which states that “i t is the duty of every citizen to protect and preserve public property and expose and combat misuse and waste of public funds and property ”.
He then ordered the government to make available to Citizen Ghana copies of all documents relating to the bus-branding contract.
This judgment is seen as a victory for right to information activists, in that, there is no need for Parliament to pass the Right to Information Bill, which has sat on their desks for many years, for Ghanaians to be able to exercise their constitutional right to information. In most democratic countries, the right to information is important to the realisation of fundamental, economic and political rights. It is the immediate foundation upon which to build good governance, transparency, accountability, participation, and to check arbitrariness and corruption in public life.
It is based on the principle that in a democracy, the sovereignty of a nation lies in the hands of the people in whose name and on whose behalf government exercises power. What then happens to our esteemed constitution if this tenet of democracy is disregarded?
To quote the Walter Cronkite (the most trusted man in America), “Not only do we have a right to know, we have a duty to know what our government is doing in our name. If there is a criticism to be made to day, it is that the press is not doing enough to put the pressure on the government to provide information.”
I hope Mr. Ahiaku will insist on his constitutional right, backed by the Citizen Ghana case and demand the document, which he requires for the story in the interest of the public. Next time someone tells you that you do not have a right to know what you are asking for, remind them that it is your constitutional right and refer them to the Citizen Ghana case.
Written by Kow Essuman, Esq.
The writer is a barrister; qualified to practise law in England and Wales, New York and Ghana. He is a Senior Associate in the Litigation and Dispute Resolution practice group at Bentsi Enchill, Letsa & Ankomah and a Global Shaper (Accra Hub) of the World Economic Forum.