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Pass Freedom of Information Bill now, say NGOs

BUSINESS
By Dann Okoth | October 13th 2014
ICT Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang'i. Stakeholders suspect the Bill is stuck somewhere between the office of Attorney General and Parliament. [PHOTO:FILE/STANDARD]

Nairobi; Kenya: Failure by Parliament to enact the Freedom of Information Bill 2012 is threatening democracy and good governance, experts have warned.

The experts drawn from the civil society and Non-Governmental Organisations further cautioned that a similar reluctance by county governments to enact County Citizens Participation Bills jeopardises public participation in governance and budget making processes as espoused in the Constitution.

This, they say, could lead to misappropriation—even plunder of resources—especially at the counties, whose resource-base could rise to over Sh400 billion should the clamour to increase state funding to devolved units succeed.

The Freedom of Information Bill 2012 has been in the corridors of Parliament for two years now. Information Technology and Communication Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiangi is on record to the effect that the Cabinet had approved the Bill, however, stakeholders suspect the document is stuck somewhere between the office of Attorney General and Parliament.

Justus Nyang'aya, the director of Amnesty International Kenya says freedom of information is vital in ensuring governments deliver on their commitments and for securing the realisation of economic social and cultural rights.

"Everyone has a right to freedom of expression and this includes the right to seek, impart and receive information," he says.

He added: "The right to freedom of information is key to securing democracy and enabling development.

Nyang'aya explains that access to information will enable Kenyans to have informed opinions and to engage in full and open debate and to ensure that governments are scrutinised, thereby becoming more open, transparent and accountable and delivering good governance.

"This empowerment also enables journalists and civil society to expose corruption and wrong doing," he says.

Next week, there are plans that a section of the civil society and other interested groups would ask one of the MPs to take the Bill to Parliament as a Private Members Bill.

As the clamour for a referendum to review the Constitution to pave way for increased resource allocation to the counties rages on, the issue of governance and accountability rears its head again. If the referendum sails through or if the central government on its own volition decides to award the counties the 45 per cent increase they demand—the counties would be entitled to no less than Sh400 billion according to recent government revenue estimates.

This would amount to each of the 47 counties receiving more than Sh8 billion assuming the money would be divided equally among the counties.

But lack of public oversight in the operations of the County governments could provide a fertile ground for misuse, misappropriation or even plunder of public resources.

Ezekiel Rema from Muungano wa Wanavijiji (a community Based Organisation in Nairobi) says public participation in the County has been glossed over.

"The County government purports to include the public in its processes by recycling the same people all the time. These people who are close to the politicians cannot audit or question them yet those with ideas are left out," he says.

The ward development committee meetings under which the county engages with the public to propose their ideas are also not made public through the more accessible media like the radio and are instead announced in newspapers which are out of reach for many.

"The constitutional requirement is that such an announcement must be made in a medium that is accessible to the majority like the radio or through community representatives," says Pauline Vata, Programme Officer at Social and Economic Rights Centre (Hakijamii).

Dr Steve Ouma, executive director at Pamoja Trust, an NGO agitating for the rights of urban poor warns that while public participation efforts can be extremely valuable, superficial or poorly designed efforts may simply waste valuable staff time and financial resources, and at worst can increase public cynicism if the public perceives that its input has not been taken seriously.

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