Parliament was divided over the meaning of a clause in the Right to Information (RTI) Bill, which requires a person urgently requesting for information to provide reasons.
Some Members of Parliament (MPs) say this requirement could be used to frustrate the applicant and defeat the whole purpose of a right to information law.
Clause 1 of the Right to Information Bill was the sticking point in Wednesday's debate on the floor of the House which is considering the Bill for the second time. The Bill has seen more than 1,000 amendments. These amendments are stalling the passage of the Bill as MPs would have to go through each piece of proposed amendment.
The controversial Clause states: "The Clause provides for access to official information held by a government agency. Except for information specified as exempt information, a person has a right of access to information held by government agencies and does not need to give a reason for the request for access, unless that person requests that the application is treated with urgency. "
Under the proposed law, an Information Officer must within 14 days respond to a person’s request for information. But if the person requesting the information wants the request to be treated with urgency, he/she must state reasons why the information is needed urgently.
Some MPs say this gives too much discretionary power to an Information Officer and may defeat the purpose of the law.
This clause caused controversy even before Parliament went on recess stalling the passage of the bill last month. The MPs have not changed their stance as the House resumed sitting this week.
“We are saying that certificate of urgency should be taken out so that there would be a general clause,” an MP said on the floor of parliament.
Last year, the Legal and Constitutional Committee of Parliament rejected a provision in the Right to Information Bill that allows the Minister of Justice to regulate access to information.
Instead, the MPs want a new position of an Information Commissioner created to bear the responsibility of supervising requests for information that the law determines should be accessible to citizens.
These are some of the challenging legislative hurdles that have made the Bill the most protracted legislation in Parliament in recent times.
Parliament began the consideration of the RTI Bills which has been before the House since 2013. The Bill was drafted in 1999 and reviewed in 2003, 2005 and 2007 but was not presented to Parliament.
The RTI Bill is expected to operationalise Article 21(1)(f) of the 1992 Constitution states, “All persons shall have the right to information, subject to such qualifications and laws, as are necessary for a democratic society”.
Once the bill is passed, the public will have the legal right to access to information such as government records, files, registers, maps, data, drawings, reports, among others.