I followed with keen interest the implementation of the Right to Information Act 2019 (989), which spells out the processes and procedure for Ghanaians to access information from public offices; a right guaranteed under Article 21 (1)(f) of the 1992 Constitution.
I followed the sensitization drive by the Ministry of Information for stakeholders to help them better appreciate how the law will operate. I followed the media publicity too, as well as the media discourse.
Convinced that I had a fair understanding of the operationalisation of the act, I set out to apply for information at one of government’s key ministries (the most important ministry if you ask me).
I was emboldened to undertake this venture as a private citizen after the Information Minister, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, said categorically, without any equivocation that the Act was operational at all ministries. He was a guest on the Wednesday, January 8 edition of the Point-Blank programme on Citi FM and below is a transcript of excerpts of the interview he granted Umaru Sanda.
Kojo: The first thing you do is that you apply for information from the information officer in the public institution. Today, if you go to the ministries, there are information officers who have been designated.
Umaru: Since when?
Kojo: They have been designated, you should send a reporter,
Umaru: Ministries? Every ministry has an information officer?
Kojo: Yes, you should send a reporter, there is an information officer who has been designated, there are forms, standard forms that have been made available to assist you in your application and even those forms have columns where they will be able to feedback to you when and where you can come back for feedback.
Umaru: At ministries?
Kojo: It’s at the ministries.
Kojo: No, we haven’t completed the rollout for the departments and agencies yet, but at the ministries you’ll get that exercise happening currently.
I took the Information Minister’s word for it. I had no reason to doubt a government official, an elderly person at that, because such people never lie in our part of the world.
The next day, I saw a news story on TV3 where a journalist went to the Information Ministry to apply for information and the entire process was well documented. In that story, the Technical Assistant and Head of Delivery Unit at the Office of the Minister for Information, Selasi Abode-Spencer, reiterated how operational the Act was at all government ministries.
“It’s as simple as that, you pick up an application, fill it, submit it back to the public institution, will be received, you will be given a chit that will tell you when to come back for a decision on the application. … just the ministries at the moment.”, he told Portia Gabor who was the reporter on the beat.
Even before these utterances by the Information Minister and his officers, the ministry had put out infographics on their Facebook page spelling out the process one is required to go through.
So, before I set off to the Ministry of Finance that Monday, January 13, I had imagined a very simple and seamless process as the minister had explained. I had hoped my story would also be told like that which I saw on TV3. But those only remained wishes as I would later discover for myself that reality there is more complex than it’s confusing.
On reaching there, the receptionist seemed clueless when I introduced myself and told her I was there to apply for information under the RTI Act. I took the pain to explain to her what it meant. She then placed a call to find out which office could attend to me because it appeared my mission was a little strange. She asked me to go to the Client Service Unit after she got off the phone.
At the Client Service Unit I introduced myself again and my mission repeated as I did at the reception but added , I was a private citizen from Madina. The three ladies I encountered in that office to whom I told my mission did not also know what RTI was so, I explained again.
They asked what information I wanted. I was taken aback. I quizzed to be sure they actually wanted me to disclose the information to them already. They said it’s their practice.
I explained to them that the procedure for the application of information from a public institution required that I engage with an Information Officer and that it did not require an applicant to first disclose their information. I told them I would therefore not disclose my information until I was sure they were the designated Information Officers.
They insisted that it was their responsibility to engage with any member of the public who came to ask for any information from the ministry and it is their practice that the person makes an oral submission to them so they enter into their computers and work on it. I told them their process is quite different from that which I learnt from the RTI Act procedure, based on which I was there, so I would not disclose the information.
They referred me to their superior (boss) and she too repeated what her subordinates had said and asked to know what information I needed. I insisted I was there to engage with an information officer who will take me through the process of applying for the information, part of which includes me filling a form.
I told her I was not there to access their regular services but to access information under the newly implemented RTI Act which has a clearly spelt out procedure. At this point, the whole office of five (4 ladies and one gentleman who appears to have sketchy knowledge about the Act) was trying to make sense of my mission because I appeared to be “difficult”. They thought I would succumb to their directive but I knew exactly what I wanted and thus expressed my position strongly – I did not care that it was just me against five people “playing a match at home” .
They could not understand why I would not disclose the information I wanted. After a back and forth, the superior in the office decided to call the PR unit so I could meet them but it turned out they were not around at the time.
While I stood my grounds of non-disclosure until I see Information Officers who would take me through the RTI Act procedure for accessing information, I asked specific questions and I established the following;
- There are no such officers as information officers or officers designated for that purpose in the Finance Ministry as the Information Ministry wants us to believe.
- The procedure for acquiring information (if you will get it at all) at the Ministry of Finance does not conform with the RTI Act – It has a regular Client Service Unit.
- The offices at the Ministry of Finance that are in direct and constant contact with the public have no knowledge at all or sketchy knowledge about the RTI Act.
Just when I was about softening my stance to see their next line of action, a man walks in. The superior addresses him as Nii, one in charge of security at the ministry. She told Nii about me and how I came looking for information but would not disclose the information.
But for Nii’s civility and understanding of natural justice, anything could have happened to me because she later admitted that she had called in Nii to come take me away if I wouldn’t disclose what I wanted. When she told Nii why she called him in, Nii asked if what she said was true. I confirmed but added I would only disclose my information if I was convinced I was engaging with the right people, i.e information Officers. I added that I had decided to make a disclosure after their explanations.
When I obliged, she asked that I make an oral submission of the information I wanted as that was their procedure. I did, but she had barely started typing when she stopped and told me I would have to make a written application. I was surprised at the inconsistencies so, I asked why. She said my request was “peculiar”. I asked how a request for the full expenditure made on Ghana @ 6o celebration could be peculiar? She started going on and on about how the request will have to go through processes, how it will have to come from the top and how voluminous it could be.
I told her the RTI Act has made provisions for all those things so, they could just take my application and respond to it in 14 days – that didn’t seem like something she understood.
They eventually improvised a form for me to fill specifying my name, institution, information requested, description of information, contact and email. Just when I filled the form and submitted, they got information from what they said was a Budget Office that I have to bring a written application addressed to the Finance Minister.
At this point I decided to give up because the atmosphere in the office was that of apprehension, contempt and disdain. Before I left, I asked for a receipt of a sort to show I had come to request for information. They gave me a piece of paper with their office number.
I walked out and granted an interview to the media because they wanted to know how operational the RTI Act was at the Ministry of Finance. So was the Information Ministry merely throwing dust into the eyes of the public?
Understandably, it may take a while before things properly align for the full implementation of the Act and it is important that the implementing ministry is sincere with the people. If an educated person who has a fair understanding of the Act had an experience like this, what becomes of illiterates?
By P. D Wedam|3news.com | Ghana
The writer is a multimedia journalist with the Media General Group and a law student. Views expressed in their article are entirely the writer’.