Access to information is fundamental in any society that is governed by the rule of law. This forms an important tool for holding governments to account because they are required to be more transparent in their projects and day to day activities. When the citizens and civil societies have access to information held by public bodies, they are more empowered to hold their leaders accountable and be able to monitor the projects and how the money is being spent. This in turn helps in the fight against corruption. It also ensures that the public is in a position to participate in governance. Citizens should therefore have access to information held by the state.
The right to freedom of information is encapsulated in International Instruments. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protected in international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Article 35 of the Kenyan Constitution and Section 96 of the County Governement Act, 2012, provide for the right to access information. Article 31(1) specifically guarantees all Kenyan Citizens the right to access information held by the state or information held by another person. The access to information act obligates all public entities and companies that receive taxpayer funds or provide public services such as telecommunications companies and banks, as well as those engaged in oil and mineral extractions, to make accessible information on request by citizens.
When citizens have timely and accurate information, they are provided with an opportunity to participate effectively in the democratic processes. It fosters openness and transparency in decision-making. Citizens can only exercise their rights or influence decision making if they have access to reliable and adequate information, be it from the local governments or central government. Freedom of information allows citizens to scrutinize their officials, to participate in decision-making and to exercise their rights and responsibilities in an effective and informed manner.
With access to information, citizens will then be empowered to demand action against the corrupt and recovery of diverted development expenditure. Lack of free flow of information hinders economic and social development. It is important that all the budgetary information is shared with the public. Those involved and the specific projects should be known for accountability purposes Members of the public through access to information should be aware of the projects the government is funding.
Statistics show that in 2005, of the ten countries scoring best in transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index, no fewer than nine had effective legislation enabling the public to peruse government files and of the ten counties that were perceived to be worst in corruption, only two had freedom of information legislation. Access to information reduces corruption and promotes transparency in governments, since citizens are empowered through information (Nderi, 2008)
Access to information also reduces electoral fraud and promotes proper public participation in elections. Documents such as the voters’ register should be available to the public long before elections to avoid cases of rigging and inconsistency in voter turnout. Democracy is further enhanced when the public engage with public institutions and form their judgment on the basis of facts and evidence rather than just empty promises and meaningless political slogans. With access to electoral information, the government is more sensitive, accountable and responsive to the needs of its citizens.
The government should ease access to information across multiple platforms including online, in print and through traditional media, alongside clear procedures on how information can be accessed in instances when it is not publicly available. There should be an elaborate framework to define the threshold when information can be accessed and denied.