No mood for celebration over ‘almost criminal’ delay in passing RTI law

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After 19 years, Parliament has finally passed the Right to Information bill but a campaigner says there is no mood for celebration.

“It has been very exhausting,” Samson Lardy Anyenini, who is a member of the RTI coalition, summed up in a concerted struggle to push Parliament to act.

The bill is meant to operationalise Article 21 (1) (f) of the Constitution which states that “All persons shall have the right to information subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society.”

It was first drafted in 1999 under the auspices of the Institute of Economic Affairs. But it would be first introduced on the floor of Parliament on February 5, 2010.

It has taken approximately 6,988 days, the tenure of three Parliaments and three Speakers of the House, a chamber full of MPs who have talked, debated, vowed, referred it, suspended it and finally passed it – late into Monday night.

“This is a landmark achievement,” the Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament Alban Bagbin said after chairing the passage of the law in Parliament.

But all of this has been done under the weight of a clanging media advocacy with an occasional throwing in of harsh language.

A member of the RTI coalition Samson Lardy Anyenini who has been looking forward for the passed looked back on the advocacy and concluded Parliament has put people through “needless suffering” to have this law.

Weighing up the advocacy, the legal practitioner said the passage of the bill is a “sad commentary on our parliament” and “a sad commentary on governance.”

He explained the right to information is already enshrined in the 1992 constitution. “Just confirm it,” he explained the bill was to lay out the practical steps to get information.

Samson Lardy Anyenini said the people on whose behalf the government derives its power have expressed interest in knowing how decisions are taken on their behalf as the RTI law directs.

But leaders in parliament would come out to say, since the financial implications of the bill was not catered for in the 2019 budget, implementation of the law will start in 2020.

A baffled Mr. Anyenini said Parliament has passed dozens of bills without complaining about whether budgetary allocation exists to implement these laws.

There was an argument from Parliament that government would need to recruit information officers to handle request but the legal practitioner wondered why PROs in public institutions cannot simply be required to handle such requests.

“A lot of rubbish has been put on us all the time,” Samson Lardy Anyenini recounted the despair at the several excuses thrown at the bill.

“You simply can’t wrap your mind around it,” he said.

And then there was the antics in parliament.

“Anytime it was raised to be considered in parliament there was an MP who would rise up and say we don’t have a quorum and so they have to stop considering it,” he said and observed the MP would raise no objections to other bills that did not command a quorum.

He observed a certain impression from politicians to take credit for finally passing the law.

“The jury is out there whether this was made out of a certain benevolence or made from pressure from the public.”

The legal practitioner said he was also not happy at the final state of the bill that was passed, noting there are clauses that could still deny information on issues like public contracts.

But he was not despairing, he said noting there are opportunities within the law to still ensure the public get the information they request for.

A person seeking information from a public institution would have to request for it from an Information Officer who has 14 days to confirm or deny the request.

If it is denied, the applicant can appeal to the head of the public institution who has to respond within a specified period of time.

If it is refused an applicant can escalate the request to the Right to Information Commission for a review.

The law is awaiting presidential assent. After that, the government is required to bring a Legislative Instrument to Parliament.

An RTI issue is going back to Parliament again.

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