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media laws, the missing link in fighting graft
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.
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
is still much to be done in creating mass awareness which will translate
into social action.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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