In light of the foregoing, we call on governments in Africa to work with civil society organisations to draft bills and adopt laws that respect, at a minimum, the following principles:
- Access to information is a right of everyone.
Anyone may request information. There should be no citizenship requirements and no need to justify why the information is being sought.
- Access is the rule – secrecy is the exception.
Information held by government bodies is public in principle. Information can be withheld only for a narrow set of legitimate reasons set forth in international law and also codified in national law.
- The right applies to all public bodies and private bodies performing public functions.
The public has a right to receive information in the possession of any institution funded by the public and private bodies performing public functions, such as water and electricity providers.
- Making requests should be simple, speedy, and free.
Making a request should be simple. The only requirements should be to supply a name, address and description of the information sought. Requestors should be able to file requests in writing or orally. Information should be provided immediately or within a short timeframe. The cost should not be greater than the reproduction of documents and mailing, where applicable.
- Officials have a duty to assist requestors.
Public officials should assist requestors in making their requests. If a request is submitted to the wrong public body, officials should transfer the request to the appropriate body.
- Refusals must be justified.
Governments may only withhold information from public access if disclosure would cause demonstrable harm to legitimate interests, such as national security or privacy. These exceptions must be clearly and specifically defined by law. Any refusal must clearly state the reasons for withholding the information.
- The public interest takes precedence over secrecy.
Information must be released when the public interest outweighs any harm in releasing it. There is a strong presumption that information about threats to the environment, health, or human rights, and information revealing corruption, should be released, given the high public interest in such information.
- Everyone has the right to apply for a review of an adverse decision.
All requestors have the right to a prompt and effective judicial review of a public body’s refusal or failure to disclose information.
- Public bodies must maintain and manage records, and should proactively publish core information.
Every public body should make readily available information about its functions and responsibilities, including a list of the types of documents and information that it holds, without need for a request. This information should be current, clear, and in plain language.
- The right should be guaranteed by an independent body.
An independent agency, such as an ombudsperson or commissioner, should be established to review refusals, promote awareness, and advance the right to access information.