For any free market, every transaction is based on the availability of information. For instance, prior to making any purchase, most consumers, of necessity, inquire on commodity prices before making a determination on whether to buy or not. If consumers do not have adequate information to make informed decisions, they are unlikely to make the best choices for their needs.
Further, where consumers lack sufficient information, or find it difficult to make informed decisions, companies face less competitive pressure, and the market is less likely to deliver value for consumers. Basically, these economic actors need data, which translates to information, to make informed choices.
The importance of an access to information law can be anchored on a few justifications. First, information is an economic resource. Certain categories of information are only available to specific actors who have the resources to produce this information. Government for instance is a repository for a lot of useful information.
Most of the information which members of the public require to access in order to participate effectively and efficiently in national development is predominantly held by Government and other public bodies. In the absence of a law to govern the access to public information, a majority of citizens remain on the periphery, unable to contribute to development.
As an illustration, only the government of Kenya has the resources to conduct a National Census. In the event of an investor seeking to establish the demand rate for housing in the country, he would certainly require information from previous census reports. Such reports and any other documents produced by public resources ought to be readily available to the investor, for them to decide whether to put their money into housing or a more lucrative project. An access to information law plays a critical role in ensuring that government makes such information available and accessible to the relevant actors.
Secondly, a good access to information law prevents the propagation of inequality towards different actors seeking similar information. For instance, most commercial banks are privy to information from the Central Bank of Kenya, which ordinary Kenyans lack. This can often be detrimental to the public who despite their heavy investment in banks tend to have the hardest time acquiring useful information from these same institutions. Bank officials do not feel obliged to provide the information demanded by the public.
Often, citizens are required to not only provide lengthy justification for their information requests, but also to financially pay for it. An access to information law would play a vital role in mitigating these inequalities by requiring banks and other financial institutions to make all information available and accessible to their clients.
Thirdly and most significantly, a good access to information law is critical for enhanced public participation, now enshrined as one of the national values and principles of governance under Article 10 of the Constitution. Access to information is a critical element in promoting participatory democracy and effective decision making.
It is also essential to fostering demand for accountability from public officials at all levels and in assessing the performance of Government. It is only through an awareness of the different economic opportunities available to them, that citizens are able to participate and make useful contribution to these processes.
Further, being able to access information creates an important avenue for citizens to activate their other rights. The public ought to be fully aware that they have a right to demand access to information held by the State or other person, and required for the exercise of their rights or fundamental freedoms. This knowledge provides an important interlink to demand for other rights including their economic and social rights as spelt out under Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya.
In summary, the belief amongst economists is that economic efficiency is achieved when goods and services that are produced actually get to the consumer, avoiding wasteful overproduction. Conversely, it is economically inefficient for agencies, be they government or organizations, to produce information that is not conveyed to the citizenry.
The brief was prepared by Article 19 East Africa.