African countries drag their heels in recognising the importance of access to information. Professor Jane Duncan explains just why this is happening and what is being done urgently to change this.
In October 2010 the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, signed a Freedom of Information Act into law. The Act is the first of its kind in West Africa, and was a significant breakthrough for the access to information movement in Africa, and has renewed hope that civil society can make gains in other countries.
After a promising start, this movement has experienced a hiatus, with no major piece of legislation being passed for several years. This is disappointing, as freedom of information has gained major momentum globally. In fact, 60 of the 90 access to information laws in the world have been enacted in the past decade.
Progress has not been rapid in Africa. Sixteen African countries have recognised the right of access to information in their constitutions, and 18 have recognised it as part of a more general right to freedom of expression. However, only six African countries have enacted specific laws. These are South Africa, Uganda, Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia and Zimbabwe (although it is debatable whether Zimbabwe’s law enables or disables access to information). In the case of Uganda, Angola and Ethiopia, the laws have not been implemented. Laws are essential to ensure the rights are entrenched, and to ensure effective redress mechanisms if the information requested is not disclosed.
Some countries had even undergone reversals – the most notable being South Africa, which had introduced a regressive Protection of Information Bill. After initial strides towards greater openness, Zambia’s freedom of information legislation has stalled. This lack of progress has negative implications for a continent already struggling to wrest itself from poverty and underdevelopment. Without a continental climate of openness and transparency, public resources can be misused and governments can abuse power more easily. Furthermore, the continent’s rich resources can continue to be exploited for the benefit of a few, and at the expense of citizens.
African countries are able to drag their heels on recognising access to information, as there is no instrument to ensure that laws are enacted and respected. In recognition of this fact, several African non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have established the Windhoek +20 campaign to advocate for an African Platform for Access to Information (APAI) to be adopted by the United National Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and the African Union (AU) in 2011. Furthermore, the campaign wants September 28 to be recognised by Unesco as International Right to Know Day.
The platform advocates for access to information laws that recognise certain principles. Firstly, maximum disclosure of information with minimum exemptions. Secondly, all exemptions should be subject to a public interest override. Thirdly, countries should make as much information as possible available automatically. Where information requests are made, the process should be simple, affordable and quick, and enforcement of access to information laws should be effective. Lastly, whistleblowers should be protected.
The organisations involved in the campaign include South African-based Highway Africa, a project of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, the Nigerian-based Media Rights Agenda, the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa, the South African-based Open Democracy Advice Centre, the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the International Federation of Journalists (Africa region).
The campaign derives its name from the Windhoek Declaration on Press Freedom, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 20 years ago to promote press freedom in Africa. The UN has also recognised May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. The declaration was initially championed by civil society and Unesco and, since then, major strides have been made in advancing press freedom on the continent. Ten years afterwards, another declaration was developed by African civil society, focusing specifically on broadcasting.
Now, it has become apparent that a declaration dedicated to access to information is warranted, that articulates the right as a general right of citizens rather than a media right. It is hoped that such a declaration will create an international climate conducive to access to information, leading to renewed momentum on the enactment of laws.
The campaign aims to draft the declaration at an African Media and Information Summit planned for September 16 – 17, 2011 in Cape Town. The summit will comprise a series of parallel conferences, including the African Summit on Access to Information, the Highway Africa Conference, the Digital Citizen Indaba (DCI), the Southern Africa Broadcasting Association AGM, and the African Media Leaders Forum (AMLF) of the Sol Plaatje Media Leadership Institute.
These conferences will also share some plenary sessions. In the final plenary session, it is hoped that the declaration will be adopted by all the participants (in the region of 1 000 delegates are expected), which should give the declaration tremendous gravitas. It is anticipated that delegates for the Media and Information Summit will be drawn from about 40 African countries, which should ensure that the resulting declaration is an expression of the views of civil society across the whole continent.
The campaign’s website can be found at www.windhoekplus20.org
This story was first published in The Media magazine.