Push for access to information

Media freedom activists, academics, policymakers, editors and nongovernmental organisations will join forces at a conference in Cape Town this month, which aims to yield a declaration on access to information in the mould of the watershed Windhoek Declaration on press freedom.

More than 1 000 delegates from up to 50 African countries will gather for the Pan Afri­can Conference on Access to Information from September 17 to 19. It is a civil society response to threats to media freedom facing South Africa and other African countries.

South Africa's Protection of Information Bill, despite major perceived flaws, including its exclusion of a public interest defence for those who possess or publish classified information, has been referred to the National Assembly for enactment. The parliamentary deadline for the Bill to be passed is September 23.

Only six of 54 African countries—South Africa, Uganda, Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia and Nigeria—have access-to-information laws, although their implementation is often seen as inadequate.

Experts from India, Canada, the United States and Australia will participate in the Cape Town event, which marks the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, which gave rise to World Press Freedom Day.

The Windhoek Declaration emphasises the importance of an independent press, transparency, freedom of expression and the free flow of information, and the need for journalists to be protected by democratic rights.

The Cape Town conference, being held in partnership with the African Union Commission, Unesco and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, will broaden the issue of the right to information beyond the media.

"At this point in history, the emphasis is on the other side of the media freedom coin—on access to information," said one of the organisers, Professor Guy Berger of Rhodes University's school of journalism and media studies.

The September declaration would be designed to serve as a platform for further action, Berger said, and was likely be known as the African Platform on Access to Information.

"In many African countries, press freedom and freedom of expression are constitutional rights and the media market is diverse, liberalised and growing. However, as regards access to information, most of Africa has lagged behind, including in the areas of transparency and ICT [information and communications technology] development."

There would be 65 speakers at the conference, which would seek to partner the African Union Commission in making the declaration enforceable in all AU member countries, Berger said.

One of the aims of the conference, said Berger, was to have the proposed World Access to Information Day recognised by the African Union Commission and the other partners involved. If the public had access to information, he said, it would be able to use and evaluate it to advance democratic values.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

Glenda Daniels serves on the R2K national working group


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