Access to Information Laws are Essential for Active Citizenship

15th February 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

Information is like water - it flows until it is blocked. One of the most promising ways to overcome blockages and to increase the flow of information is through access to information laws. The ability to obtain pertinent information is essential for the exercise of group and individual rights - and importantly - active citizenship.
Despite the provision of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights for a right to "seek, receive and impart information", less than 10 percent of African countries enjoy an enforceable statutory right to information according to The Carter Center. The continent lags far behind the rest of the world in establishing such cornerstone legislation. And where such legislation exists, its implementation is patchy. In South Africa, the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Act 2 of 2000, as amended) gives effect to the constitutional right to access any information held by the State or another person that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights. The Act requires public bodies to designate Information Officers together with a description of the assistance that they can render. The South African Human Rights Commission is mandated to compile the contact information of these officials together with other basic information into a guide that is to be published at least bi-annually.
The situation on the ground is different than that set out in the Promotion of Access to Information Act. There is more commotion than promotion. As Mukelani Dimba reports in the South African Crime Quarterly (December 2009), there have been instances where officials have discouraged applicants from filing formal requests under the Act and advised them instead to "just ask nicely". These officials view the person making the request as being confrontational. Even civil society organizations engaged in this area, such as the Open Democracy Advice Centre, have to resort to making "anonymous requests" at times for fear of alienating the government departments with which they collaborate with on various projects.
Clearly, a change in attitude is needed on the part of some government officials. Both civil society and ordinary citizens can help bring this about by consistently asserting their right to access the information that affects their lives. More specifically, citizens can identify the relevant Information Officer, follow basic procedures, and request documents or the reasons as to why a particular request was denied. Civil society, on the other hand, can advocate on behalf of citizens, monitor and evaluate government, help other public or private institutions raise awareness, as well as the capacity of government to respond to legitimate requests for information. Success may not be forthcoming at first, but persistence will lead to a critical mass of proponents transforming the hearts and minds of officials into accepting their proper role as custodians of information instead of acting like the owners of information.
On the wider stage of Africa, the African Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information that ended 9 February 2010 in Accra, Ghana has undertaken to develop a regional plan for Africa that will provide more specific guidance together with the Atlanta Declaration and Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information. As part of the regional action plan, The Carter Center should also commit to drafting a model freedom of information law suited to the African continent. In its monitoring of the African Regional Findings and Plan of Action, adoption of the proposed model law or its variants should also be tracked and recommendations for improvement and lessons learned disseminated.
When most of the proposals outlined here bear fruit and the durance of information ends, sustenance akin to water will be realized and governance enhanced for all.

Written by: Epaminondas Bellos, Ph.D. Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, ISS Head Office, Pretoria