Wednesday, 29 September 2010


On International Right to Know Day yesterday (28 September) African democracy institute Idasa called on countries that have taken bold steps of enacting access to information laws, such as Uganda, Angola and South Africa, to not regress into secrecy, but further strengthen implementation of these laws.
Idasa’s call to defend our access to information, made on International Right to Know Day, comes in the context of the controversial recently amended Protection of Information Bill which threatens to narrow media access to government held information. This poses a threat against what is arguable the most progressive Right to Know legislation in Southern Africa.
Idasa warns that the only Southern African country, apart from South Africa, with advanced freedom of information legislation is Zambia, with a bill currently in the form of draft legislation.
In southern Africa six SADC countries have expressly guaranteed the right to information within their constitutional framework, namely; South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, the DRC, Tanzania, and Madagascar. Another eight other SADC countries have only protected this right within the context of the broader right of freedom of expression which normally includes the right to “seek, receive and impart information”. These countries are Botswana, Lesotho, Angola, Zambia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Swaziland.
The Zambian bill, a product of a healthy and successful partnership between the government and civil society, was first tabled before parliament in 2002. It was unceremoniously withdrawn by the government during its second reading, but six years later, in early 2008, was reintroduced by the late Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa, and it is now reaching resolution.
“Hence, it is evidently still early days in the enactment of Freedom of Information laws on the African continent,” Idasa’s Yolanda Taylor of the Right To Know, Right to Education project said.
“Freedom of Information advocates have a formidable task ahead of them, which is nothing short of changing the culture from that of secrecy to that of openness. “
Idasa believes access to information is an important tool for promoting accountability and transparency in public service delivery and should be rigorously championed. There is a need for activists and advocates to remain forever vigilant.
Campaign groups and lobbyists must continue to learn from the examples on law advocacy that have come from South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, Ghana, and Kenya. Generally, civil society and progressive governments on the continent should be encouraged to make Freedom of Information part of the discourse in consolidating of democracy and promoting socio-economic justice.
South Africa passed the Promotion of Access to Information Act on February 2nd 2000. This progressive and potentially trend-setting move intended: “To give effect to the constitutional right of access to any information held by the State and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.” Importantly then, the right of access encompasses privately held information.
Freedom of information law does not necessarily just cover governmental bodies. The private sector is required to give ordinary citizens access to information. It follows that the current Freedom of Information Bill must include private sector accountability. Broad-based transparent governance requires as much.
A lot has happened since the last Right to Know Day here in South Africa. The recently amended Protection of Information Bill is one such controversial piece of legislation that is currently before parliament. The media has been at the forefront of opposing this law as they argue that information is the sole right of the media. The point, however, should surely be that Freedom of Information is a human right that all citizens must enjoy. Moreover, freedom of information must be closely linked to civic participation – and not just limited to freedom of expression.
Rather than expand the scope of freedom of information, the Bill has recently been amended to narrow media access to government held information. Although still in draft phase, the South African government now seeks to classify certain information that is in their possession as “confidential” and “secret,” and therefore not for the media and public to see. There seems, from government, to be no recognition that when access to information is widely practiced it leads to building community-based capacity for participation in democratic processes.
“When communities engage in their Right to Know it becomes easier to hold the government accountable. This results in a more transparent public service which is good for democracy. Wider public participation can also aid in dealing with development challenges on the continent; governance practice is enhanced when citizens are sensitized about their rights. The example of South Africa on adding “secrecy” is not good for continental best practice,” said Ms Taylor.

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