Delegates join forces to promote access to information across Africa

Several hundred delegates from about 50 African countries gathered in Cape Town in September to adopt a declaration on access to information.

As Parliament wrestled with the Protection of State Information Bill last month, media and access to information advocates from around the world came together in Cape Town for the Pan African Conference on Access to Information (Pacai).

The gathered activists, government stakeholders, civil society members and journalists then unanimously adopted and signed the African Platform on Access to Information (Apai), a policy document that calls for access to information legislation in all African countries.

Only 10 African countries have ratified access to information laws.

The conference was the culmination of the efforts of the Windhoek +20 Campaign, a continental initiative of African organisations formed to mark the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration of 1991, which dealt with concerns regarding the brutal oppression of the press in Africa and abroad.

The Windhoek Declaration called for the immediate release of 17 journalists who were imprisoned in African nations at the time. Today there are 17 journalists detained in Eritrea alone.

The watershed declaration was signed and adopted on May 3 1991 — now recognised as World Press Freedom Day — and was later endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2002.

While recognising press freedom as a crucial human right, the Windhoek Declaration additionally cited freedom of information as a “fundamental contribution to the fulfilment of human aspirations”. Apai additionally stresses the obligation of both public and private bodies to “proactively” release and publish information of the public interest that concerns their structures, officials and budgets, among others.

Apai included contributions from almost 700 people in at least 32 African countries, and was adopted by the African Information and Media Summit (Aims), a converging meeting between Pacai and the Digital Citizens’ Indaba, on September 19. It was the culmination of the efforts of the Windhoek +20 Campaign, a continental initiative of African organisations formed to mark the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration.

Theresa Mallinson, managing editor of Free African Media, said: “With the tangible impact of the Windhoek Declaration signed 20 years ago, there was the feeling that this new declaration will also provide impetus for affecting real change.”

Academic and media analyst Professor Guy Berger emphasised that while it was a crucial step that Apai had been adopted there was still much work to be done to encourage and support access to information in Africa.

He described the future of Apai using an architectural analogy: “We have built the platform of Apai, where a “platform” refers to something that is made to stand out and be more visible, and at the same time raises you closer as if you’re trying to reach the sky. We have created the supporting structures and scaffolding in the form of this document. But we have to keep building on it, expanding it, maintaining it, or else it will become derelict. That is our next step — to make sure the foundations we’ve built and the ensuing building do not become redundant and derelict.”

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