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Media Council of Kenya Deputy Chief Executive Officer Victor Bwire. Photo/ FILE

Fifth Estate

Respect for right to information key to marketing Kenya

The culture of secrecy and routine administrative codes in public bodies still stands in the way of Kenyans right to information thus frustrating their access to services. It’s not interesting that bodies funded by Kenyans and expected to facilitate access to services have failed to act as custodians of the public good.  Additional challenges for access to information in Kenya include poor management of information by public bodies, poor public administration and inefficiencies, and gross violation of human rights by duty bearers.

As required by law, information held by public bodies must be accessible to members of the public in the absence of an overriding public interest in secrecy. The law provides exceptions to information sharing and encourages pro-active disclosure of the same to enable citizens to engage with its leadership and participate in national issues. A country that commits to its aspirations to become a knowledge society, cannot continue to practice selective sharing of basic information to its citizens as a public good. A country keen on attracting direct foreign investment, job creation, improve on accountability, fight corruption and entrench democracy, should take sharing of information as the first step towards such and embrace information sharing as a best practice.

That even after several years of seeing the benefits of sharing information with citizens globally, and article 35 of the Constitution, the Access to Information Act 2016 and a horse of regulatory provisions on public participation in governance, Kenyans are still struggling to access information held by public bodies, merely because of office culture by public officers, who continue to display impunity and arrogance to Kenyans.

While for many years countries across the globe failed to enact the right to information laws because they had been packaged purely as anti-corruption laws that will be used to expose corruption in public bodies, increasingly, this thinking has been found wrong as the benefits of access to information to citizens outweighs this narrow presentation.

For the public to engage with their leaders and assess the performance and delivery of services, they must access information about the state of the economy, human rights, foreign relations, budgets, among other national issues. This is the only way to assure health informed national conversation on important matters of the nation. It’s even more important for the journalists so that they can write objective, in-depth and informative stories of public interest. As already indicated, a functional right to information framework critical in combating corruption and human rights violations. Many times, when allowed or using their own means, investigative journalists have used the right to access information to expose the misuse of public resources, thus aiding the work on government anti-corruption agencies.

Government bodies hold a lot of very relevant information in all kinds and formats that if shared professionally are very useful for those wishing to invest in the country. Investors would want to know some basic things about a country, which they use before making any attempt to invest or visit, so a well-done package on the country targeting a particular country of interest or where Kenya mostly exports its goods and services is critical. That public bodies are even denying information to other public bodies to enable them to provide service to citizens is irritating. The country has lost a lot of treasured information because of such selfish actions by some public officers. That newspapers are still stamped “confidential” in public offices or getting information on core mandate issues from public bodies is a mirage in Kenya.

Failing to fully implement the access to information law has many disadvantages including; corruption, undermining markets by increasing transaction costs, frustrates accountability in the management of public resources, limits democracy for denying citizens information on the performance of their elected leaders, denies individuals opportunity with the facts that to make informed decisions, leads to wastage of time and resources seeking for basic data among others.

As we mark the International Day for Universal Access to Information this year, lets purpose to embrace the culture of working ahead of time and sharing information to citizens. In this era of misinformation and propaganda, amidst the waning popularity of governments globally, journalists will depend more on pro-active disclosure of credible, useful, and nuanced information from public bodies to enable reporting of national issues. Professional engagement between government and journalists is critical today ever than before, so that we build the knowledge society that we have pledged, involve people in governance and create room for economic development based on data.

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