Debates on Access to Information in Africa intensify

Debates on Access to Information in Africa intensify

Date: July 8, 2011
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Those interested in freedom of expression issues would agree with me that debates on access to information in Africa have intensified. First it was the Draft Model Law for African Union Member States on Access to Information that has been released into the public domain by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to information in Africa, Commissioner Faith Pansy Tlakula. Consultations on the model law have begun and will inform changes to the draft, which is expected to be adopted at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (ACHPR) 50th Ordinary Session in October 2011.

Second, following the Windhoek +20 celebrations on Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media which acknowledged the significance of the declaration in improving media freedom in Africa, media activists are now turning their attention to another freedom of expression issue, access to information. Access to information refers to public access to official information that is held by governments and private bodies. In any democracy, it is imperative that citizens have access to a wide range of information so that they are able to participate fully in both public and private life. The right of access to information places obligations on governments to package and disseminate key information and to ensure that it provides information including government-held information. Closely linked to the right to access public information is the right of every person to know: to have access to the information he or she needs to make informed decisions and live an autonomous life.

Media activists are in the process of crafting a Declaration on Access to Information that will be released for comments on 20 July 2011. It is hoped that the declaration will have influence on access to information similar to that drawn by the Windhoek Declaration on media freedom in Africa. The significance of the access to information debates are based on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that guarantees to every citizen “the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” A very narrow understanding of the meaning of this right has led to different interpretations of the duties imposed on governments and much concentration on the negative obligations of governments in fulfilling this right. Yet, “the media also has not been living up to Article 19” said Pat Made at the Gender and Media Diversity Centre Advisory Group meeting held at Gender Links in Johannesburg in May 2011. She added that the media itself feels that it is the institution that should enjoy media freedom rights than any other institution or the citizens themselves.

It is distressing that, once again, there is a very narrow understanding of access to information, and a failure to take into consideration the differential impact this issue has on women and men. If the Access to Information for AU states is going to be a model law it should be exhaustive and highlight the gender dimensions of access to information. Similarly, as media experts craft the Declaration on Access to Information, that will probably be known as the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), the gender dimensions of access should be clearly stipulated.

For instance, if right of access to information is related to the public’s right to know, who is the public? The public are women and men who form the citizenry of a given country. These women and men need to make informed decisions about how development affects them and at the same time demand accountability from their leaders. It is thus important to move from a narrow understanding of access to information to a broader view which includes access for marginalised groups such as women.

Nigeria is the latest country in Africa to have a Freedom of Information Act which was passed on 28 May 2011. Between June 13 and 17, Friederich Ebert Stifung (FES Ethiopia) hosted ten experts on Freedom of Information in Addis Ababa. A press release put out by MISA states that the experts came together to finalize the first draft of the Access Platform on Access to Information (APAI) declaration. The draft declaration will be a home grown legislation relevant to the African context and should therefore address the challenges to accessing information. The latest draft declaration will be out on 20 July for public comments. Gender Links will put up the draft declaration on its website to solicit comments on the gender dimensions of access to information that should be included in the final declaration.

It is hoped that the Declaration will be adopted in Cape Town at the Africa Information and Media Summit, the closing session that will bring together the Pan African Conference on Access to Information together with the Highway Africa Conference.

Download : MISA Press release - draft APAI declaration

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