Public Access to Information Should Be Free for All.

Whereas public support for freedom of expression is strong and growing, a large majority of citizens still hold the view that government should only be able to restrict access to information when that information is vital to national security but it should not use it as a cover for wrongdoing and fear of its officials being exposed.

According to data coming from Twaweza East Africa’s Sauti ya Wananchi survey, which is a nationally representative high frequency mobile phone panel survey of public opinion and citizens’ experiences, most citizens say the media should be free to report government’s mistakes and corruption scandals such that legal and swift action can be taken against the listed culprits.

The Country Lead of Twaweza East Africa, Ms. Violate Alinda presented the survey report on Friday 17th September 2021 at Hotel Africana during a media training workshop organized in collaboration with Africa Freedom of Information Centre [AFIC] and the Editor’s Guild on ‘’the Right to Know;Building Back Better with Access to Information’’ which sensitized media personalities about the importance and potential benefits of using the Access to Information Act; which directly affects them as they carry out their media works. This workshop was part of a series of lined up two weeks’ campaign towards the 28th of September, the commemoration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information.

The survey pointed out that 72% of respondents demanded that government could hold information over national security concerns while 80% of the respondents demanded that citizens should be allowed to criticize leaders since it helps to prevent future mistakes; leaving 20% who preferred the alternative that freedom to criticize leaders is harmful however, support for freedom of expression has increased since 2019, respectively.

Across a range of government offices and information being requested, citizens have less confidence in government that it would avail information including asking a school about their funding, asking local authorities for information on plans and budgets alongside asking health facilities about the availability of medicines among others; all ending up with vague responses or mute denial.

The number of people making successful requests for information about resources has declined with only 54% of all reported requests for information granted the information.      

Seven out of ten citizens [72%] cite radio as their main source of information which is well ahead of any media, though has declined a little since 2017 however the second most widely cited source is a TV with nearly doubling since 2017 [16%] in 2020, 9% in 2017] respectively as other sources of information remain very low in comparison.

While the other interesting area is social media which is the primary source of information for [18-24-year-olds [4.3%] and a similar number of those with higher levels of education [3.9%], but very low for everyone else.

Word of mouth remain the primary source of information for a significant number of poorer citizens [10%], with only primary education [9%] and older citizens [8%] respectively.

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. Every day, 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.

Inequality in all its forms is a concern of the global community and individual nations. However, most policymakers and advocates have not appreciated the fact that inequality is a consequence of lack of public access to information and 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 the choice of excellent 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 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.