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Access to information is not limited to the media
Fortune Nhengu
March 23, 2012

The concept of Access to Information (ATI) has generally been perceived by many to relate to clearance of misconceptions about public broadcasters (eg instances where what is referred to as a public broadcaster is in fact a state broadcaster), how media practitioners have the right to use public and private information and how it is censored through the Criminal Law (Codification and reform) Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). When Access to Information is mentioned, what normally comes to mind is the notion that progress and equality can only flourish in open and free civic space where all public concerns can be aired and debated in an environment where citizens are given an opportunity to participate in decision making. This premise puts emphasis on the institutional aspect of ATI and disregards the social dimension of the concept. ATI can be narrowed down to the grassroots as it has a bearing on residents- livelihoods hence it trickles down to service delivery and local governance.

ATI plays a significant role in maintaining social order as it is responsible for regulating citizen-s daily relations. Access to information at the grassroots promotes the values of impartiality, equality, honesty, tolerance and non-discrimination, the major tenets of democracy and good governance. This can be narrowed down to the community level especially in relation to arrest, detention, investigations, the safeguarding of detainees and suspects from torture and arbitrary arrest which have been impeded by failure to access information and provide information by both the detainee and arresting officer. Arresting officers have been reluctant to notify people (a majority of whom are not aware of their rights when arrested) of their rights and liberties at the time of arrest, the use of officially recognized detention places and detention records as well as maintenance of detention records. Many citizens have had their rights violated upon arrest due to ignorance of their civil liberties (the fact that detention does not mean conviction, that is, one has to be isolated from society for a long time). Residents have the right to challenge the lawfulness of detention, should have access to legal representation, a doctor and are entitled to a single phone call at the expense of the state. The United States of America is a good example of how ATI has contributed to safeguarding civil rights and liberties where residents have been made aware of the right to remain silent, name of arresting and investigating officer, demands they can make and liberties they can claim when arrested.

ATI has come to affect service delivery and local governance as it has contributed to how communities have made significant gains in building democratic systems of governance based on popular control of decision making in which they are treated as equals at both the local and national levels. Availability and access to information by the community is a critical part of a functioning democracy and a country-s development. ATI can be used in undertaking local government reforms that aim to improve service delivery and accountability to citizens. Such reforms would draw from regional and universal standards regarding local governance practice in particular. In other words, a community that has no access to information about operations of the local authority is deprived of its right to participation. For example the fact that most people in Bulawayo are not aware of the role they can play in monthly council meetings that are held on the last Wednesday of each month strips them of their right to participation. Furthermore, the procurement of council meeting minutes at a cost of US$39 militates against the right to information in light of the current economic crisis in the country (how justifiable is it for council meeting minutes to multiply the cost of a daily newspaper 39 fold?). This also applies to the Parliamentary Hansard which is distributed at the discretion and convenience of Government Printers (trading as Printflow). In this case, it is not mandatory for Printflow to distribute them widely and equally hence they await citizens to approach them to procure the documents, a procedure most residents are unaware of. These are very important issues that can be easily trivialized at both the institutional and social levels of governance. A majority of residents overlook these procedures by virtue of being unaware of their right to participate and the role they can play and its impact on public discourse.

Bureaucratic bundling in terms of the procurement of council by-laws by residents also barricades the right of access to information. Many attempts to obtain by-laws from the local authority in Bulawayo have been futile due to a centralized procurement system. One is referred to Printflow Pvt Ltd, formely Government Printers who have to liaise with their Head Office in Harare in a process taking a period of up to three months before the laws that govern people-s livelihoods are availed. It is also valid to argue on the basis that participation in the current constitution making process has been a preserve for civics and politicians as a majority of citizens were not and are still not aware of the process and how important their participation in the exercise is.

Corruption has been known to prevail and thrive in areas where people are deprived of information. Zimbabweans have been corruptly fleeced of their hard earned cash by police officers, other law enforcement agents and service providers who prey on residents who, due to the unavailability of the very laws that affect them, are unable to interpret or comprehend their situation. More often than not members of the public pay police officers just to be released from police custody without bothering to know what crime they are being prosecuted for. Who has not beheld drivers simply accepting traffic tickets or paying spot fines without asking the regulations or statutes they have broken? Sometimes, desperate residents have succumbed to corrupt tendencies just to access basic services which by law are for free. This is because of the absence of clearly spelt out procedures and systems to direct residents on the way or route to take I council or government offices.

ATI should not catalyze state/media wars but should be pivotal in harnessing the institutional and social dimensions of public participation by clearing misconceptions about the whole concept if democracy and good local governance are to be achieved.

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