Why Access to Information is Key

Access to information is an essential universal right that helps to ensure transparency in government. Article 19 of the Declaration states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The first Right to Information law was enacted by Sweden in 1766, motivated by the parliament’s interest in access to information held by the King. Other countries like Finland, the United States and Norway followed suit. Many countries in the world today have enacted or in the process of developing laws that support access to information.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 recognizes Access to Information as a fundamental right: Article 35 guarantees every citizen the right of access to information held by the State; and information held by another person and required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom. It further states that every person has the right to the correction or deletion of untrue or misleading information that affects the person. The article calls on the state to publish and publicize any important information affecting the nation.

Other than the Constitution, the enactment of the Access to Information Act of 2016, marked a major milestone towards the right to information and freedom of expression in Kenya. The object and purpose of this Act is to provide a framework for public entities and private bodies to proactively disclose information that they hold and to provide information on request in line with the constitutional principles among other reasons.

In the Famy Care Limited v Public Procurement Administrative Review Board & another [2012] case, Justice Majanja noted: “The right to access information is one of the rights that underpin the values of good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability and other values as set out in article 10 of the Constitution. It is based on the understanding that without access to information and the achievement of the higher values of democracy, rule of law, social justice set out in the preamble of the Constitution and Article 10 cannot be achieved unless the citizen has access to information.” This, and many other examples, emphasise on the importance of Access to Information.

Public access to government-held information allows individuals to better understand the role of government and the decisions being made on their behalf. With an informed citizenry, governments can be held accountable for their policies. For the private sector, access to good information is vital for tendering, for open competition, and for an efficient marketplace of ideas and products.

Public institutions are required to proactively provide information to the public. This includes publicizing and updating the information annually. However, failure by these bodies to provide relevant information to the public institutions should not be an excuse to hold the bodies accountable. The Access to Information Act provides for Access to Information requests by private citizens.

It is possible to get information information from a public or private entity. This will happen so long as the information being sought after is of public interest, that is, it aims to promote accountability of public entities to the public; ensure that the expenditure of public funds is subject to effective oversight; promote informed debate on issues of public interest ; keep the public adequately informed about the existence of any danger to public health or safety or to the environment; ensure that any statutory authority with regulatory responsibilities is adequately discharging its functions.

How to get Information

For you to access information, check whether the body holding the information has already published the information on their websites or any other platforms. If the information cannot be found then you are required to write to the entity that you believe holds the information giving enough details about your request. Katiba Institute prepared a handbook on Access to Information Act, 2016 which could be helpful in requesting information. The book has an Access to Information templates.

The Commission on Administrative Justice often referred to as ombudsman, is government body charged with the responsibility of overseeing and enforcing the Access to Information Act.

You therefore have a duty as a citizen to ensure that you are not only informed but also hold government accountable in all areas. The constitution of Kenya 2010 places the citizen at the centre in the preamble, chapter one on sovereignity of the people and supremacy of the constitution and the bill of rights. By asking for information, you are doing so for the good of society. Martin Luther King Jr once said “Life most persistent and urgent question is what you are doing for others?”

(The writer is the Communications & Public Liaison Officer at Katiba Institute kmabonga@katibainstitute.org)

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