The importance of the right to information to the well being of a nation cannot be overstated. At a national level it helps a country in plan on service delivery. At the local level it enhances synergy among communities, reduces conflicts and keeps people involved in their environments.
In essence, access to information is vital if a society is to survive. A story is told of the young men in Rift Valley region who were denied a chance to join the National Police Service because they had stained teeth.
These men come from Nakuru county, an area where most of its residents suffer a similar dental misfortune due to the high chemical levels in the water. However, there is no information from the government justifying this state of affairs and the residents seem to have acquiesced themselves to the situation.
No legal action has been instituted to address this gap and the consequences, as was seen with these young men are lost opportunities and a disgruntled population. It is on this premise that global and regional bodies have been established to create a demand for and spearhead the realisation of this right.
The African Union, for example, has established the office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information to advocate for the right in Africa. Its other relevant body is the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights which has taken the lead in enhancing human rights across the continent.
Last week, the special rapporteur on access to information made an advocacy visit to Kenya. Her meeting had three key objectives to: meet with government officials to advocate for the enactment of access to information laws which comply with the constitution and other international instruments, to share legislative experience with the key judicial institutions and share advocacy experience with the civil society on the full realisation and enjoyment of the right to information.
The office’s meeting with the last group was borne of the urgency for the civil society to upscale its initiatives towards the implementation of the Constitution.
The ensuing political and economic environment appears to have affected the sectors vigour in enhancing accountability within government. The term of the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution (CIC) is coming to an end with the possibility of creating a lacuna in the institutional capacity and visibility in advocacy for constitutional implementation.
The Judiciary will need to be active in reviewing the laws and policies that infringe on the right to information but this cannot happen without initiative by the public.
Further, the country lacks an access to information legislation for years and while most countries including Rwanda, Sudan and South Sudan already have their right to information laws, we seem uncomfortable in pursuing accountability and transparency in efficient and effective ways.
Moving on, at a regional level there is the need for the government to make a declaration under Article 36 of the Protocol establishing the African Court of Justice to enable Kenyan citizens and NGOs to have direct access the court.
It may also be worthwhile for more Kenyan non-governmental institutions to seek observer status at the regional court so that they advocate for that right beyond the local spheres.
At the national level, the enactment of the Access to Information Bill is long overdue and must be prioritised. At the local level, it is necessary for the members of the civil society to create a demand for the right to information. To create this, the public must first be informed and then involved in the process. The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya.