Information access affects everyone

A worldwide movement to promote people’s rights of access to information came to Africa this week. A centre set up by former United States president Jimmy Carter convened a big-guns conference in Ghana to advance the cause across the continent.

You might think: “Enough already”.
There’s already too much information out there. You’re buckling under the pressures of email, the World Wide Web, Facebook, Twitter, satellite TV bouquets, etc.

But “overload” is relative. Lots of people are still outside the information loop. And even in South Africa we still have authoritarian and corrupt officials who rely on information scarcity to resist accountability.

Meanwhile, there are probably some facts that you personally would really like to know about — or at least be assured that they are available to the media or other interested parties.

For instance, you may not personally wish to peruse the details of the confidential contracts that our authorities have signed with Fifa. But you would sure have an interest if the media could alert you to objectionable clauses—that is, if public access was permitted in regard to this document.

If you lived in an oil-rich country like Angola, you would certainly want to have transparency in the mining contracts signed by your government.

Back in 1946, the United Nations General Assembly recognised that freedom of information is “a fundamental human right and — the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”.

That’s exactly why many repressive African politicians and officials prefer to keep information close their chests.

But they can be made to move. According to one delegate at the Carter Centre conference, a draft access-to-information law had been hurried into Ghana’s Parliament to avoid embarrassment to country’s government ahead of event.

Ironically, the delegate noted, the same rush meant that the public did not have any information about a law intended precisely to strengthen their access.

Of the 54 countries on this continent, only Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa and Angola have access to information laws. But, says the Carter Centre, more than a dozen others are considering legislation.

Model law
South Africa is often said to have a model law, but many people have never heard of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. The fact that the Constitution also entitles us all to freedom of information is also not widely known. Certainly, it’s not well respected by the authorities.

An example appeared in the Newcastle Advertiser newspaper last year around a story about serious pollution. The town’s deputy mayor, Koos Vorster, ignored a first set of emailed questions from a reporter. A follow-up email with queries cautioned that “your lack of response will be duly published”.

The elected official remained unresponsive, so the paper published the story. After explaining the background, it included items like:

Q. What action has the municipality taken and what other steps does it plan to take in the future?

NO RESPONSE WAS RECEIVED

Q.What disaster management plans have been drawn up in the case of such an outbreak?

NO RESPONSE WAS RECEIVED

Q. Why has the municipality not, at the very least, put up warning signs along the river about the potential health hazard it poses to those who drink from it, or come into contact with it?

NO RESPONSE WAS RECEIVED

It is a pity the paper did not also include how much Vorster gets paid.

Such unaccountability simply echoes tests by the Open Democracy Advice Group, which show that only about 40% of governmental institutions respond to requests.

The lesson is that getting information laws in place is just a start. It’s one thing to have a legal right; it’s another to have it respected.

And it’s a third thing to have a public that knows its rights and insists upon getting them.

  • * This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, www.fesmedia.org. The views expressed in it are those of the author.
  • RSS feed for this column: //www.mg.co.za/rss/guy-berger

    Client Media Releases

    Utility outages: looking at the big picture
    UKZN scientists get L'Or'eal-UNESCO Women in Science grants
    Springbok-mania hits MTN head office
    Optimise your SMS campaigns this Black Friday