After two decades of delays by the government and innumerable demonstrations by journalists and civil society groups, Ghana last week passed a long-awaited Right to Information (RTI) bill. The law, which seeks to codify access to Ghana’s public institutions is a bid to ensure transparency in the fight against corruption.

But journalist and activists worry the new legislation, which will be signed into law by President Nana Akufo-Addo, could be used as a tool for the government to limit how journalists share or leak information on popular online platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Social media has played a prominent role in allowing investigative news to flourish by enabling journalists and citizens, often anonymously, to release leaked government documents.

Ghana ranks as the seventh least corrupt country in Africa, but still has a long way to go in the fight against institutionalized corruption. In a recent survey conducted by the University of Ghana, 88% of respondents said they strongly believe there is corruption in the country’s government ministries.

The two decades that saw the new law languish coincided with an increase in the number of assaults against Ghanaian journalists. From 2005 to 2014, there were a staggering 138 incidents of violence against journalists, most of them carried out by members of the police, military and affiliates of political parties. In January, a journalist who exposed corruption in the Ghana Football Association (GFA) was shot dead in a drive-by shooting. Ahmed Hussein-Suale, the victim, was part of a team of investigative reporters who filmed former GFA boss Kwesi Nyantakyi accepting bribes. Nyantakyi was fired by FIFA and fined $500,000.

Mourners stand beside the grave of slain Ghanaian investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale during his funeral in Accra, on January 18, 2019. Photo by: RUTH MCDOWALL/AFP/Getty Images

Activists and reporters had hoped the RTI law would help expose more of the political corruption many Ghanaians have become used to reading about. In 2018, the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Ghana was dismissed from her role for allegedly spending about $795,000 on a new office complex. The new law might cause more corrupt officials to face consequences, or at least public scrutiny.

The RTI law, estimated to cost about $145 million to implement over the next five years, will mandate public institutions like ministries to publish details of their activities within twelve months and to appoint Information RTI officers. Staff in district offices and a head office will handle requests from journalists and citizens. Information requested from public institutions is free, but Ghanaians will have to pay for the information to be photocopied or transferred to flash drives or discs. For privacy reasons, the bill does not grant access to information on budgets, contractual relationships, financial information and programme beneficiaries.

To obtain information, a journalist will have to send in a hand-written request to access information and will receive a response within 14 days. Once the access has been approved, journalists will be able to receive the information in written or electronic form.

Currently, journalists face many hurdles in obtaining information from the government. With the RTI bill, journalists hope the law help them prevail over reticent officials.

“The passing of the RTI bill by parliament is a good first step to me as a journalist, but there is a need for proper structures and policies to be put in place to operationalize the RTI law,” said Emmanuel Dogbevi, the managing director of Ghana Business News. “It was not a good decision to transfer the implementation of the RTI law from Attorney General’s Ministry to the Ministry of Information because the ministry is the mouthpiece of the government. How can we trust an institution that is connected to the government to provide authentic information?”

Two Decades of Delays

The RTI bill was first drafted in 1999 by Ghana’s Institute for Economic Affairs and sat through three elections without passage. Parliament reviewed the bill in 2003, 2005 and again in 2007 but, according to activists, it was never put to a vote due to politicians’ fears of being scrutinized by the media.

The current government promised to pass the RTI bill after failing to honor its initial commitment to pass the bill within 100 days of taking office in January 2017. Last November, frustrated journalists, lawyers and other stakeholders marched through the streets of Accra wearing red clothing; the protest trended on Twitter with the hashtag #RTIRedFriday.

About 30 demonstrators carried placards with signs that said, “Pass The RTI Bill Now” and “Got Nothing To Hide? #PassTheRTIBillNow”. The protest was led by three organizations—The Media Coalition on Right to Information, the Coalition of Right to Information, Ghana and Occupy Ghana.

The passage of the RTI bill has also coincided with calls for greater transparency from many Ghanaians about their country’s relationship with the United States in a region which has seen an expansion in American military presence. In March 2018, thousands of Ghanaians demonstrated against a $20 million deal that would supply equipment and training to the Ghanaian military and pave the way for joint U.S.-Ghana exercises. The Ghanaian government said the agreement was an extension of an existing bilateral and multilateral military relationship between the U.S. and the West African nation.

A big reason for the delay of the RTI bill delays could be put down to disagreements over a series of loopholes in the draft text. The first version of the RTI bill prevented journalists from obtaining access to information held by the offices of the president, the vice president and the cabinet. The president’s office alone is served by more than 200 staff. Media activists, civil society groups, and think tanks have all contributed in making the RTI committee in parliament relax rules which were going to make access to information access more difficult. They also pushed the RTI committee to agree to do away with the requirement for a fee to access information.

But loopholes remain. The passed bill indicates that information cannot be disclosed if it results in undue loss or gain to a person, a group, or financial institution or any other body. It also prevents the disclosure of information related to the tax returns of politicians and exempts the disclosure of information on personal matters if it arguably damages the reputation of any other individual referred to.

More worryingly, the bill maintains limits on information held by the president and the vice president as private individuals, but allows all other offices within the presidency, vice president, cabinet and ministries to be subject to disclosure.

Media organizations argue the limits curtail the bill’s ability to bring transparency to notoriously secretive government deals. For instance, the previous government refused to disclose the details of a controversial business venture amounting to about $732,000, with a bus branding marketing firm which was accused of mismanaging taxpayer money. The government initially refused to release information about the deal to avoid the risk of exposing public officials. It took the High Court in Ghana to intervene to order the government to disclose its information.

Ghanaian WikiLeaks

In the absence of an RTI bill, social media has played an important role in helping hold officials to account. Facebook and Twitter have become a kind of Ghanaian WikiLeaks, letting journalists and citizens distribute and analyze leaked government documents.

Now, journalists worry the government could use the RTI bill to crack down on those who share documents without government permission.

Individuals who disclose such information through platforms including social media can be sanctioned. Punishment can include a fine of over $40,000, a prison sentence between 1-3 years, or both.

Ghana’s Minister of Information recently hinted that the government was concerned about how news organizations and journalists use opinion pieces and social media. He said, “Where you don’t have clear policies even for mainstream media on social media usage, you can have the tendency of some of us thinking that this is my private opinion, I can put it on my Facebook wall, so it does not matter.”  

“In an era of fake news, social media should not be a threat to the RTI law. It should be used to correct information” said Dr Kojo Asante, director for advocacy and policy engagement at Ghana Center For Democratic Development.

“I have been attacked for stating a fact, on social media, for holding a politician accountable,” said Dogbevi.

The government has also argued that any information shared about national security such as the readiness of the country’s armed forces or information about individuals suspected of terrorist attacks, could jeopardize the stability of Ghana. In April 2016, there was panic of a possible terrorist strike after a leaked security memo shared on social media revealed that militant Islamists were planning to attack Ghana.

Still, despite the loopholes and flaws, journalists and activists are hoping for the law’s swift implementation.

Clause 13 of the bill provides that information is exempt from disclosure in cases where advice or consultation is likely to undermine the work of the government body. “Amendments made to the clause are still inadequate to cure its negative effect,” said Elvis Darko Editor, The Finder Newspaper. “The current draft of Clause 13 could be easily misconstrued to severely, if not completely, dilute the right to information. Our proposal to cure the defect: Parliament to introduce a Clause 13(1) (c), to explicitly state such information ceases to be exempt after the deliberative process is over. Without that explicit provision, Clause 13 could easily be interpreted to make the deliberative process ongoing.”

Africa has seen a steady increase in the number of countries adopting Right to Information legislation. In 2011, there were only five countries on the continent who had passed RTI bills, but as of 2017 about 22 African countries have adopted similar laws with Malawi being the latest addition.

Ghana loses about $27.93 billion through corruption every year. Many of the losses can be traced to fraudulent government procurement processes and theft. In 2018, Ghana was hit with a series of corruption scandals, including a $179 million Ministry of Communication deal that sparked controversy. An existing RTI bill would have mandated the transparency of the contract and demonstrated the expertise of the bidding companies.

“The president now needs to assent to the RTI law and sign it off for implementation,” said Darko. “The benefit of implementing this law exceeds the proposed amount for implementation which parliament is complaining of. We asked that timelines for setting up structures for the implementation of this law be included in the draft, but parliament rejected the submission. If there are clear timelines stated, this will speed up the implementation before the proposed January 2020.”