24.11.2017

Transparent governance starts with access to information

The struggle for transparent governance can’t be divorced from the social and political climate in Africa, where governments and political elites attempt to curb citizens’ access to information on critical issues, in violation of their rights.

Photo: Zoe Titus by FES / Zoe Titus

In 2011, participants of the Pan African Conference on Access to Information adopted the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) Declaration. With it a consensus was reached on 14 key principles to advance the right to access to information (ATI) in all its dimensions, nationally, regionally, and internationally. It was the first declaration on ATI on the African continent and, along with the African Union Model Law on ATI, it provides a sound basis to strengthen the framework for ATI on the continent.

There is clear evidence that the APAI Declaration has presented civil society with an excellent tool to support their causes. A recent study on the state of ATI on the African continent reports that the ambitious declaration has managed to impact domestic environments. Conducted by the APAI Working Group and the Open Democracy Advice Centre, with facilitation by long-time supporter fesmedia Africa, the media project by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on the continent, the study goes on to state:

"In Uganda … the African Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) have used both it [the APAI Declaration], and the African Union Model Law, to analyse their existing Law and propose recommendations on amendments to improve the Law itself, as well as its implementation."

As a result of the APAI declaration, there was also a dramatic increase in the number of countries adopting ATI laws on the continent; from five countries in 2009 to 21 in 2017.*

Overall, the declaration has assisted civil society actors to highlight the connection between ATI and the advancement of development priorities in their respective countries, thus initiating a flurry of multi-stakeholder networks campaigning on this issue.

The Access to Information in Namibia Coalition (ACTION) is a prime example of a multi-stakeholder initiative campaigning for access to information. In 2016, this coalition of like-minded civil society organizations worked closely with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to help formulate a progressive bill guaranteeing the right to information. Whilst the law has not yet been promulgated, civil society has endeavoured to ensure that the law, once passed, will have substance and initiate a real shift to increased transparency and openness instead of becoming a meaningless piece of paper adopted to satisfy political ends, as has been the case in other African countries.

The global ATI campaign scored another victory with the incorporation of Goal 16 in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Among the targets of Goal 16.10 is a call for all countries to "ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms".

However, people’s right to ATI is not achieved with the enactment of an ATI law. It’s a good start, but in most instances possibly the easiest part of a much longer, complicated process to entrench this critical right through sound implementation and monitoring strategies.

The aforementioned study underscores that the existence of an ATI law is necessary but not sufficient to ensure a positive ATI environment. It cites a lack of awareness of the laws and weak political will for implementation as key inhibitors. Other challenges include weak implementation of proactive disclosure, and low levels of utilization of Internet and Communication Technologies to facilitate access, both of which make the reality of open government data, in particular, a problematic area on the continent.

Watch and share! Video by fesmedia in Africa—the media project of FES on the continent—that demonstrates how access to information can improve people’s lives and access to basic services.

Watch and share!

We cannot divorce the struggle for open and transparent governance from the social and political climate which is increasingly becoming murkier; where governments and political elites attempt to curb the right of citizens to access information on critical issues that affect their lives. Internet shut-downs, over-regulation of social media, along with increasing repression of independent media, are signs that the democratic space is shrinking.

Now more than ever we need committed ATI activists to develop a positive discourse around ATI to encourage both users of public information, and bureaucratic and administrative actors; equally, we need active and engaged citizens that are empowered with relevant and verifiable information, to drive sustainable development. ###

Notes:
*The 21 countries mentioned are: Angola, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Zoe Titus is the former Regional Director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which initiated the African Platform on Access to Information campaign and its ensuing Working Group. She is presently the Strategic Coordinator of the Namibia Media Trust which works to promote media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information in Namibia and beyond its borders.

For more information on the work by fesmedia in Africa, visit their website.

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