Each year on 28th September, the world celebrates the International right to Information day, a day that ought to remind us all that the right of access to information is a sine qua non for a democratic state pursuing the values of accountability, transparency, openness and responsiveness.
Rwanda’s recognition of this right was buttressed by the passing of the right to information law in 2013, which many lauded as the Rwandan government’s keenness to entrench transparency and accountability as well as enhancing greater participation by citizens in the management of public affairs.
This is because good governance, citizen participation and accountability without access to information would be an illusion and since Rwanda was cementing its systems, governance structures and citizen’s platforms then, access to information was used as a tool to enhance the necessary development.
Although the access to information is a human right and a prerequisite for democracy and development, it’s often fretted with some shortcomings that stem from the people’s limited or no knowledge of their right, the lack of accuracy or provision of distorted information, the delay or failure to provide information by public institutions and civil society organizations.
There are instances when individuals ask for information from a public agency in vain, until they later follow-up with a phone call, message or physical visit to the offices, before they are even told that their official letter was lost in other “dossiers”.
Is it because the secretaries, receptionists, or secretariats are given a prior warning not to allow such letters or it’s because they do not know that people have a right to know?
Well, what the public can ask for when exercising the right is also an issue where greater clarity is needed. Maybe, some people ask what they have no right to, or request access to some information that could potentially jeopardize the national security.
Such instances where information is delayed, denied or even altered is also common in civil society organizations that do not respond to requests for information, yet they are equally at the heart of championing for democracy and citizen participation.
Information laws have empowered citizens to seek information from public authorities, making governments more accountable and responsible.
Since information is power, it is insufficient merely to allow individual’s access to information, rather the information that is provided must be accurate and not distorted.
The ineffectiveness in the access to information doesn’t only affect the individual or organization denied the information, it can adversely affect the integrity of an institution, government or non-government, it can impede public participation and also jeopardize the respect of other rights.
Notably, I have come to realize that some organizations do not respond to requests for information because of poor record-keeping procedures, which if streamlined can enable swift responses to requests for information from the public.
In developing countries, most public information officers struggle with this and providing the information within the stipulated time period due to poor training and inadequate record management procedures, which is often aggravated by the lack of enabling infrastructure like computers, scanners, Internet connectivity, photocopiers, or even databases that can store information for a long time.
It’s therefore not enough to change the mindset of the people in government or the NGOs, rather also there is need to create the necessary infrastructure, develop new processes, and build capacity to deliver information as mandated by law
For the right to information to be implemented effectively, awareness must be increased especially among women, the rural population, and marginalized groups.
It’s so common for citizens and disadvantaged communities to be significantly more aware of government schemes focused on socioeconomic development than their own right to information.
One would ask, if they are helped out of abject poverty, to what use would the right to information be?
Well, even knowing about the schemes is there right exercise, but also knowing that they have a right to question or hold their leader to account, or even request for information would be much better, because informed citizens are citizens who participate meaningfully and responsibly.
Enactment of the law is not enough, but there is need for more efforts in sensitizing the citizens about the law, its provisions, the guidelines, the information they are allowed access to and that which they are not.
That duty will not be done by the government alone but also a strong civil society to develop awareness drives but also create an effective demand for information. The right to information can produce results and help establish good governance.
Dr. Joseph R. Nkurunziza is the Executive Director of Never Again, Rwanda