It is time for Kenya's coalition government to honour the people's right to freedom of information, writes L. Muthoni Wanyeki, the executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission,  in the East African.  

L. Muthoni Wanyeki writes in the East African:

Nine months into the year and five months into the so-called Grand Coalition government, almost no public gathering has been allowed.

The police seem to have adopted a strategy of not responding to notifications — and then using that lack of response as denial of the right to demonstrate.

Last Friday, for instance, a public gathering at Kencom House to discuss the Economic Partnership Agreements — for which notification had been duly given and the relevant payments made to Nairobi City Council — was dispersed.

No reason was given. Posters about the implications of the EPAs — the proposed trade agreements between the European Union and countries of the underdeveloped South — were confiscated and torn up.

The Ministry of Trade is convinced the EPAs are good for us, as is the Kenya Association of Manufacturers as well as the large-scale horticultural farmers whose primary market is Europe.

But human-rights activists and small-scale farmers are convinced that they will contribute to the destruction of livelihoods.

Both sides deserve to be heard for the Ministry of Trade, which is negotiating the EPAs on our behalf, to find a consensus position that takes all legitimate concerns into account.

Ensuring that both sides are heard invokes another right — that of freedom of information. So the dispersal of Friday's attempted public gathering could be said to have violated not just the right to freedom of assembly, but also the right to freedom of information.

Ironically, on the same day, at the same time, the first public gathering and procession to be allowed to proceed unimpeded was taking place.

Organised by the Freedom of Information Network, it was intended to show public support for the passing of long-awaited legislation on Freedom of Information.

Freedom of information was, of course, first raised as a fundamental reform issue in the early 1990s by the media, being seen as a means of decreasing its reliance on "sources" within line ministries, departments and parastatals to find out what our government was up to.

This reliance on "sources" imposes on media workers the burden of cultivating relationships with public servants simply in order to access information that should rightly be in the public domain.

And it to places public-service workers ready to share such information at risk of being charged under the Official Secrets Act.

In the late 1990s, in the struggle against grand corruption, while "sources" within the public service were again helpful in getting information out, the fate of such whistleblowers was clear.

David Munyakei of the Central Bank of Kenya lost his job and died impoverished and ill for blowing the whistle on the Goldenberg scandal. More recently, John Githongo of the Office of the President fled into exile over the Anglo-Leasing scandal.

Freedom of information legislation — combined with recent laws on the protection of whistleblowers — is intended to make acting in the public interest a positive obligation for public servants — and a far less costly choice.

But freedom of information is also intended for us all, as citizens. Who among us does not have a horror story about our encounters with the public service in search of the various approvals, documents and licences required to live our day-to-day lives?

Who hasn't been sent on a run around simply because the requirements for these are never made sufficiently clear, each providing the opportunity for petty corruption to occur?

Freedom of information legislation is intended to ensure a positive obligation on the public service to make these requirements publicly accessible. It will contribute to reducing our blood pressure and stress levels and to our all being able to more actively monitor what the government does on our behalf.
L. Muthoni Wanyeki is executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission. This article first appeared in the East African