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Progressive media laws, the missing link in fighting graft
Wilbert Mandinde, MISA-Zimbabwe
October 08, 2006

http://www.thestandard.co.zw/viewinfo.cfm?linkid=21&id=4943

ON 28 September, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) joined a global coalition of free expression advocates in commemorating the International Right to Know Day. On this day our global efforts are focussed on promoting the right of access to information for all people and the benefits of open, transparent and accountable governments.

The right to information can only be effectively exercised and implemented on the basis of laws, regulating this right in accordance with international standards. While in southern Africa, South Africa is the only country which has a law that enables its citizens to access public held information, MISA acknowledges the advances being made in other countries of the region to formulate such laws.

From the onset we wish to state that Zimbabwe’s ironically named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), in fact, does not promote the right of citizens to access information. On the contrary, the law introduces such extensive limitations to this right that it makes it near impossible for citizens to access information. Many governments, non-governmental organisations, media organisations and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression have condemned this law for the extreme restrictions it places on freedom of expression.

Misa celebrates this day reflecting on the past achievements and failures of the right to information in Southern Africa:

It is worth noting that the right to information has gained considerable importance in recent years among governments and is on the agendas of media law reform in many countries, and this, is worth celebrating. There is also a growing awareness and interest among civil society to join alliances on the call for freedom of information legislation.

In many countries the public is increasingly getting aware and joining discussions on the issue of freedom of information, a development which was hardly the case five years ago. Therefore the biggest achievement in southern Africa has been the acceptance and growing awareness of the importance and indispensability of freedom of information to democracy.

However, there is still much to be done in creating mass awareness which will translate into social action.

The biggest challenge to freedom of information in southern Africa is governments’ leisurely pace towards media law reform.

While all SADC countries guarantee freedom of expression as a fundamental right and acknowledge the need for the right to information, they seem to be in no particular hurry in passing access to information laws. SADC Heads of State have signed international and regional treaties committing to freedom of information but have failed to translate it into meaningful actions that make this right a reality for the people of our region.

Perhaps we need to explain what exactly we mean by the right to know, also referred to as the right to information or freedom of information.

The right to know is simply the call to make information held by public institutions available and accessible to the public. The right to information is not a mere call for government records, but a call for a more transparent and accountable governance process, if democracy has to be meaningful.

A freedom of information law sets out guidelines, procedures and parameters on how the public can access information from public and/or private institutions.

MISA believes that the right to information must be guaranteed by a strong legislation and the process of law-making must be participatory and consultative. For the effective participation of citizens in the governance and development of their country, they should be enabled to have easy and timely access to critical information.

The right to information is a global issue of importance, with more than 60 countries with laws on right to information, hailed as a basis for effective participation in governance as well as a potentially powerful tool for countering corruption.

In southern Africa where more than 70% of underdevelopment and poverty is directly linked to corruption, the right to know laws could have taken more prominence and priority in law reform.

MISA believes that corruption can never be truly fought without freedom of information legislation. In fact there is a correlation between highly corrupt countries with the absence of right to information laws.

The reluctance or perhaps the failure of governments to enact and pass legislation leaves more questions than answers; what could governments possibly be hiding from its citizens? Why are there so many delays in as far as right to information laws are concerned? Do our governments have something to hide which such a law will bring to the light?

In the absence of answers there are two schools of thought on this matter: either that our governments are highly corrupt or that they are genuinely ignorant on the merits of such a law.

The former is not totally presumptuous given the many cases and evidence of corruption and abuse of power in the higher and lower places of government. Clearly if these abuses of power and mismanagement of resources are to the benefit of policy makers then such a law is not in their interest and they will do anything in their power to block it.

The latter assumption is that perhaps there is a genuine ignorance and lack of understanding of the merits and needs of such a law. In a recent study by MISA, two SADC members of parliament were interviewed on the need for the right to information law.

They doubted the relevance of a right to information law citing that it would interfere with the privacy act. "Why would we pass such a law if it will be in conflict with the privacy Act?"

Such views are ill-informed and an obstacle to the passing of right to know laws which are designed for the greater good of society. Obviously there are limitations to information that can be accessed under such a law. Nonetheless, in an open, transparent and democratic society we should avail ourselves to scrutiny.

MISA believes that the right to information is fundamental to the realisation of social and economic rights.

MISA calls on the people of southern Africa to join the long overdue call for freedom of information law, because the right to information is not just about the media – it is about the right to live:

Without the right to information you will never know what happened to the money allocated in your community to build a clinic, to buy medicine, to build a school, to dig a borehole. You will never know how many government tenders where allocated to whom and why, without information you will never know why your children are unemployed.

Crucially, the right to information is envisioned as the cornerstone of all freedoms – in effect, one cannot fully enjoy or exercise the right to vote, self-determination or to a clean and healthy environment or make informed choices without the information that would make those rights or choices worthwhile. The enjoyment of the other rights and the choices to be made as to the effective means and ways of doing so will inherently depend on the availability of information.

  • MISA calls on civil society: trade unions, the churches to join in the campaign for the right to know, which ultimately is a fight against corruption and social injustice.
  • MISA is ready and willing to work with SADC governments in providing technical expertise in drafting the right to information.
  • MISA strongly condemns unjustified delays from SADC governments and calls for speeding-up processes of passing laws on freedom of information to information.

Visit the MISA-Zimbabwe fact sheet

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