/ 10 March 2011

A clash of paradigms

Democratic states like South Africa which promote transparency, accountability, media freedom, and access to information seem to be leaning towards secrecy.

This was laid bare by presentations made by Gary Dickson, information and privacy commissioner from Canada and Nic Dawes, Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief at Wits University in Johannesburg on Wednesday at a conference interrogating the roles, rights, and responsibilities of African media.

“We are dealing with a clash of paradigms here [in South Africa]. On one hand we have a model that says the democratic state is at its strongest when it is challenged and [engaged] in discussion … and on the other hand a model that says ‘trust us, you elected us and leave it like that’,” said Dawes.

Dawes was referring to the proposed Protection of Information Bill currently being discussed in Parliament and the African National Congress’s mooted media appeals tribunal against the current Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000.

This trend is developing while media houses and journalists in West African states such as Nigeria are still fighting for their government to pass a Bill promoting the access to information held by state institutions.

This would make it possible for media and other organisations, including private citizens, to apply for and obtain information that is in the public interest in that country.

Bill stalls in Nigeria
Presenting the experience of media practitioners in Nigeria, Maxwell Kadiri from the Open Society of Justice Initiative’s Africa Programme, said a draft Bill on access to information has stalled in his country because of former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s “displeasure with the media”.

“It would interest you to know that the Bill that is still pending before Parliament was actually passed in 2007 by both [legislative] chambers of Parliament,” said Kadiri.

In South Africa, the right to media freedom is ensured by the county’s 14-year-old Constitution while access to information in the public interest is ensured by the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

However the Protection of Information Bill, in its current form threatens the free flow of information from state institutions.

The Bill seeks to classify information deemed by the state as “sensitive and dangerous” for the country’s national security.

Dawes said what the Protection of Information Bill does essentially is to allow any government body — from the National Intelligence Agency to the Johannesburg Zoo — to classify information and then to pose stringent penalties.

Govt reluctance
Though acknowledging the Promotion of Access to Information Act’s role in South Africa, Dawes pointed out the reluctance of the government to make the information available — using the 2002 Zimbabwe elections report commissioned by former president Thabo Mbeki, and prepared by Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and Constitutional Court Judge Sisi Khampepe — as an example.

The presidency is still appealing a judgement by the Supreme Court of Appeal which supported the North Gauteng High Court’s ruling that a copy of the report be handed to the paper.

According to Dickson’s presentation to the conference, Canada has 28 years of experience to information legislation.

“There are now 14 different access to information regimes: one in each of the 10 provinces, one in each of the three territories [Yukon, North-West Territories and Nunavut], and at the federal level,” he said. Canada, unlike South Africa, has a federal government.

However, despite this experience, Dickson noted that formalities, regulations, and sometimes lack of proper documentation in some provinces still mean access to information is delayed.

“You will all understand that delay attenuates the information value of the [records request by the journalist],” he said.