Despite the absence of widespread documented evidence on the benefits of access to information (ATI) legislation, its role in advancing the progress of open democracy in countries where the legislation exists cannot be disputed. ATI legislation, appeals to objectives that are directed at good-governance constants of transparency, accountability and informed public participation, which underpin sound democracy.
Most commentators on the subject ranging from, experts, specific interest groups, civil society, ordinary communities, governments etc have contended that, access to information legislation is a tool for empowering citizens, including vulnerable and excluded people to claim their rights by enabling them to exercise their voice, hold government to account and participate in informed dialogue about decisions that affect their lives.
ATI Civil Society Coalition study tour
Last week, I had the opportunity of participating in a study tour in Kampala, Uganda organised by the Civil Society Coalition on Access to Information. Other members of the delegation included, a representative from Zambia Civic Education Association (ZCEA) and Press Freedom Committee of The Post, respectively.
The objective of the tour was to learn from the Ugandan experience with the view to gather insights that would inform the Coalitions input to Zambia’s ATI process. The study tour was coordinated by Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) a Pan-African human rights civil society organisation promoting the right of access to information on the African continent.
AFIC has supported ATI legislative processes in Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Angola, to mention a few, and works with the national FOI coalition in Uganda to spearhead advocacy for the effective implementation of the Uganda’s Access to Information Act of 2005. On the first day of the visit, the coordinator of AFIC shared on the achievements of the Centre and also the status of ATI legislation in Africa as at July 2012. I was struck by the lack of progress in the adoption of ATI laws in Africa. Only 10 out of the 54 countries have an enforceable ATI law.
So then, if ATI legislation has such potential for contributing to good governance and poverty reduction, by empowering citizens to use it to demand better governance and public services why has the progress in adoption of ATI legislation, in Africa been so poor? Why are most African governments opposed to access to information laws despite the practical value in advancing the rights of the poor and marginalised and making them more accountable to the citizens? What are the preconditions for the adoption of ATI legislation?
These and many more questions flooded my mind in the course of the visit. It is my intension to share some of my reflections in the following paragraphs in the hope of stimulating debate on whether or not some of the necessary preconditions exist in the Zambian case to lead to the eventual passing of the law and if not suggestions on how we can remedy potential barriers.
Successful adoption of ATI legislation is dependent on strong political commitment. Political resistance is widely cited as a reason for the failure for governments to support increased access to information laws.
The reluctance of governments to grant access appears to be largely motivated by a keen sense of self-preservation and a prevailing culture of secrecy and lack of transparency. While CSOs were behind the driving force in the campaign for the enactment of the Ugandan ATI law, government created the necessary regulatory environment for its eventual passing.
The Zambian government indicated, as soon as it ascended to power, that it is committed to the consideration and adoption of the draft Access to Information Bill. The then information minister, Given Lubinda assured the Zambians that FOI would be made one of the PF government’s benchmarks within the first ninety days of being in power. Being a party that campaigned on its commitment to accountability and transparency, it was no wonder that access to information was therefore a necessary starting point.
Over the months, the Coalition has been working closely with the government through the Freedom of Information Taskforce on updating the draft bill. The setting up of the Taskforce has been the most authoritative expression of government’s commitment to the enactment of the ATI law. The taskforce is led by Ministry of Information with representatives from other key government ministries, legislative experts, cooperating partners and civil society.
The current growing concern is that since the postponement of the launch of the draft bill scheduled for June 26, 2012, there has been no indication from the government about when the launch would take place. I think that as citizens, CSOs and other stakeholders, we need to borrow a leaf from the Ugandan experience, on how we can build political will for the enactment of the current draft bill.
Although the passage of the law may not in itself guarantee meaningful access to information, as we learnt in Uganda, it is a crucial important first step in the process.
Fuller appreciation of ATI benefits
Access to information should be seen in the context of informed public participation and service delivery. It is instrumental in informing wider platforms for engagement and shaping policies which are relevant to the communities, the government has pledged to serve.
In this sense, it has a very real significant role to play in sustaining a robust democracy. The unwillingness of governments to enact laws has been influenced by the perception that ATI legislation fuels antagonism between the government and its citizens and availing certain information to the public might be a threat to the country’s security.
In Uganda for example, ATI legislation has maximised poor communities’ access to information on public services, health, education and employment, which they often lack. The focus should be on the legislation as tool for empowerment and poverty reduction.
Exchange of information and experience
Sharing of experience among countries preparing for ATI legislation is a useful mechanism for sharing best practices and exchanging information. Enactment of the Ugandan law was preceded by a visit of government officials to South Africa.
Exchange of information will assist government in appreciating the benefits of the law in the development agenda and once enacted, assist government in gaining credibility before the public as asserted by the Secretary in the Ugandan, Ministry of Information during our meeting with her, “as government, you are serving the people; you need to let them know what you are doing. Access to information helps us organise our work better”.
The visit to Uganda provoked a strong longing for the government to extend access to information and the means to use that information to the Zambians. It has a moral obligation to translate its commitments into reality by launching the draft bill for public consultation and eventual tabling in parliament.
Adoption of the access to information legislation will be the litmus test for the PF’s commitment to an open and transparent system of governance; anything short of that will be mere rhetoric.
As CSOs, we pledge our commitment to continue increasing awareness of the right to access information at community level in the hope that the PF government will live up to its legacy of being an open government and enact the law.
Article written by Ms Sheila Kambobe (Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection) and published in The Post Newspapers of Zambia