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Freedom of expression and the media are essential for development.

KEYNOTE PRESENTATION DURING THE WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY CONFERENCE IN SOUTH SUDAN

 

Hon Michael Makuei Lueth, Minister of Information, Communication, Technology and Postal Services;
Hon. Paulino Lokudu, Minister of Information , Central Equatoria
Your Excellency Larry E Andre, Jr USA Ambassador to South Sudan
Your Excellency Jonny Baxter, British Ambassador to South Sudan
Mr. Tap Raj Pant UNESCO Representative
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen;

It is a great honor to join you today to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day at a time when COVID-19 continues to demonstrate the critical role of access to information in a crises.

The theme for this year is: “Information as a public good.” Economists define a public good as one that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous- and as such users cannot be barred from accessing or using them and, use by one person neither prevents access of other people nor does it reduce availability to others.

This is what access to public information should be- maximum disclosure, universal to everyone, cost free, easy to access as a right not as a privilege and one should have a freedom to express themselves on whether they are happy about records they have accessed or not.

However, it is important to recognize that as we celebrate this day, there are millions of people; women, youth, people with disabilities, patients, refugees and displaced persons who struggle every day to
access basic information important for their survival and development. Hundreds of journalists live in fear for giving information to the public.

Access to Information forms an integral part of Freedom of Expression, guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom
of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.

It is also recognized in five other African Union treaties, namely: Article 19 of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, Article 9 and 12 (4) of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, Article 10 (3d) and 11 (2i) of the African Youth Charter, Article 6 of the African Charter on the Values and Principles of Public Service and Administration and, Article 3 of the African Statistics Charter.

Hon Minister, excellencies distinguished ladies and gentlemen, in the event of a crisis, like COVID-19, the public has a fundamental right to be informed about what has happened, measures taken by government
to combat the crisis and its potential consequences at individual, community and national level. Citizens should also be informed of the resources government agencies have received to combat the problem and
how these are being used.

Access to information must be recognized as a norm in sustainable development as established under SDG 16.10.2 not just as a goal but the oxygen that gives life to all other SDGs. It must also be at the
center of efforts to realize informed and resilient citizens not just today but tomorrow and the distant future.

Why access to public information?

Access to Information is a human right that serves the entire public, including women, the youth, children, displaced persons, civil society, the media and government officials, to list but a few.

Leaders need timely access to information to lead and govern effectively. Everyday, citizens look to leaders for responsive policies that address their concerns or take their countries forward. Without information policy development and implementation is greatly encumbered. At the Open Government Partnership Africa meeting in 2015, now retired President Jakaya Morisho Kikweto of the Republic of Tanzania shared his experience that it was sometimes difficult for him to access important information for his decision-making as president.

Excellencies, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, inequality in all its forms is a concern of the global community and individual nations. However, most policy makers and advocates have not appreciated
the fact that inequality is a consequence of lack of public access to information and at the same time it also disproportionately affects the weak and vulnerable members of our society. Those who get access to information on opportunities use it to plan and take full advantage of such opportunities and advance themselves. Whether it is choice of good hospitals for mothers and schools for children, favorable
market prices, government tender opportunities or the right season for planting crops, this information helps them make better decisions.

Unfortunately, disadvantaged members of our societies like women, youth and people with disabilities who would greatly benefit from public information find it more difficult to access and use it hence
growing inequality. It thus goes without saying that the struggle for public access to information is a struggle against inequality.

At the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) we have found that whereas African governments spend over 60% of national budgets annually through public procurement, women owned companies win less than 1% of tenders mainly due to lack of access to information and capacities to tender and execute public contracts. How can the war against inequality be won if women are not equitably sharing in the national cake? How can women be good doctors and teachers at home when they do not have access to
information?

Our current International Development Research Centre (IDRC) funded research on the barriers to women’s participation in public procurement in East Africa seeks to shine light on obstacles to women’s participation and engage policy makers in Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania on policy options to address this challenge.

Emerging evidence shows that without public access to information the fight against health and other crises like COVID-19 can be longer, difficult and costly. Timely access to information helps in the prevention and management of diseases. It has been demonstrated that timely access to official information can be the difference between life and death.

Public access to information is a central part of ensuring good stewardship of resources appropriated to fight emergencies and crises. Unfortunately, experiences from previous crises like the fight against
Ebola epidemic in DR Congo and the Boko haram terrorism in Nigeria, show that resources appropriated to fight these crises were diverted and corruptly embezzled. Stressing the importance of access to information in ensuring effective response to health and other crises.

Across Africa, lack of access to information has created a fertile ground for fake news and misinformation some times hampering government programmes and initiatives including those related to crisis response.

At Africa Freedom of Information Centre we have learnt that passage of access to information laws is very important but only the beginning. Governments need to implement them, civil society and media have to use them to demand accountability awhile oversight agencies like Information Commissions need to strictly enforce compliance.

Access to information is an enabler of all other rights. Whether it is the right to food, health, education of free from discrimination or being governed well, access to information is at the centre of promotion and protection of all rights.

Way Forward

Given the importance of public access to information and the recognition that information is not yet a public good in South Sudan and indeed across Africa, what should be done to realize sustainable development?

  1. South Sudan and other 24 African governments need to urgently implement their respective access to information laws, not as a public relations tool but authentic accountability to citizens. Public officials should be trained on the provisions of the Access to Information Act and be compelled to implement the law. The Information Commission needs to be adequately facilitated and empowered to enforce the Act.
  2. Media is the is critical channel through which the public accesses public information yet UNESCO reports show that many countries including South Sudan journalists are under constant threats and pressures of one form or the other to not hold power accountable. Governments should commit to building democratic societies including actively promoting media freedom.
  3. Governments’ implementation of access to information laws and responsiveness to citizen needs by and large is dependent on whether CSOs make information requests on issues of concern. Civil society should make it a priority to use access to information laws to foster accountability.
  4. It has been demonstrated that without public access to information donor funds for health, refugee response and other crises are not put to the right use hence escalating pandemics like Covid-19. Donor agencies should prioritize funding CSOs to implement access to information programmes related to crises.
  5. Thirty (30) African countries are yet to adopt access to information laws. Adoption and implementation of access to information laws should be the starting point rather than a by the way when discussing response to health and other crises.
  6. Any effort at fighting inequality that doesn’t promote access to information by disadvantaged groups is ineffective. Governments, development partners and civil society should strengthen ATI in inequality programming.
  7. The African Union should be supported to actively promote the ratification, domestication and effective implementation of access to information laws by member states in lune with AU treaties.

Information should be a public good!

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