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Positive trends and challenges to freedom of information in Africa

People protest against the Protection of Information Bill in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, Saturday, Sept 17, 2011 during a march to Parliament.
People protest against the Protection of Information Bill in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, Saturday, Sept 17, 2011 during a march to Parliament.

AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

A two-day Africa Regional Conference on Freedom of Information Implementation bringing together over 100 state and non-state actors from Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe, was held in Abuja, Nigeria.

The conference discussed and identified some emerging positive trends and clear challenges impeding effective implementation of freedom of information laws in the respective African countries.

Among the key emerging trends are: a growing recognition on the continent that citizens have a right of access to information; the adoption of a Model Access to Information Law by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights; a burgeoning access to information community of practice that is willing to offer assistance both in-country and across the region; and an encouraging speed in passage of progressive access to information laws.

Challenges identified include:

  • Lack of critical understanding of the access to information laws by public officials and citizens;
  • Poor documentation, record-keeping and archival processes;
  • Inadequate funding of oversight mechanisms and freedom of information units in public institutions;
  • Most public institutions are not in compliance with access to information law obligations. Non compliance is largely on the issue of proactive disclosure and timely reporting about the extent to which they have implemented the laws; and
  • In most of the countries, there are no dedicated oversight mechanisms and where there are, procedures of appeal are not well spelt out.

The conference reiterated the need for countries without comprehensive access to information laws to speedily pass such laws. It also pointed out the need for amending and/or repealing laws and policies that continue to hamper access to information regimes. The conference deliberated and proposed the following strategies as necessary minimums for effective implementation of access to information laws.

Public Enlightenment and Awareness

There is need for oversight bodies and mechanisms in the various countries to take the lead in their promotional mandate to run outreach, education and awareness programmes clearly targeting different sections of society to raise awareness and understanding of the law. Some of the illustrative tools that could be employed include train the trainer programmes, stakeholders/key operators-analysis, town hall meetings, town criers, road shows, serialised dramas and plays in various languages, social media, visual aids, and experience sharing.

Similarly, the media and a broad section of civil society should embrace access to information laws as a necessary tool in advancing their work.

Access to information laws should be simplified and/or translated into local languages to make them accessible to broader sections of the population.

Sensitization and Training of Public Institutions and Officials

To change the bureaucratic inertia and resistance, deliberate efforts should be made to sensitize public institutions and officials at all levels of government about the rights of the public to access information held by public institutions. Sensitization should not be limited to freedom of information officials alone but should include all staff so that they are able to direct members of the public on how to locate the Freedom of Information Desk within their institutions.

Record Keeping and Information Management

Public institutions should be required to document their proceedings and formally keep records about all their activities, operations and businesses in order to ensure that the access to information law is not deliberately undermined through the non-creation of records.

In addition, public institutions must strengthen existing internal information and record management structures to ensure they are digitised for ease of archival and retrieval processes.

Funding

Public institutions should develop and make specific budgetary requests to help in proper discharge of their obligations under the freedom of information laws.

African governments should as a matter of priority allocate resources in national budgets to fund Freedom of Information units in each public institution; and where adequate budgetary allocations are not made, parliaments and parliamentary bodies must seek to ensure such allocations are made to ensure effective implementation of access to information laws.

Proactive Disclosure

Proactive disclosures reduce the burden on public institutions to process numerous individual requests for information from members of the public under the access to information law. Accordingly, public institutions should take advantage of this important mechanism in national laws to make information available to the public as this will also enhance citizens' trust in them.

Public institutions should use electronic records management systems to enhance the implementation of national access to information laws. In particular, they should take advantage of the Internet, ICT and social media tools in receiving, processing and responding to requests for information as well as in fulfilling their proactive disclosure obligations, including using infographics to present and explain complex data. Governments should however put in place facilities and infrastructures to ensure the availability and effectiveness of such tools.

Citizens, civil society organizations and the media should systematically monitor compliance by public institutions with their proactive disclosure obligations under national access to information laws. Whenever non-compliance is revealed by such monitoring, efforts should be made to apply remedies available in the law as well as lodging reports to the oversight body or mechanism and parliaments or parliamentary bodies given responsibility to oversee or supervise the implementation of the law.

Monitoring, Enforcement and Oversight Mechanism

Monitoring the implementation of access to information laws should be regular and systematic with the aim of generating reliable data on all aspects of the implementation of the law.

Enforcement of access to information laws should not be confined to already over-burdened courts alone, or to legislative bodies. There should be a system or mechanism for internal review and parties should have the option to appeal to an administrative body for review of decisions. Where necessary, access to courts should be simple, fast and cost-effective.

Functions of the designated oversight bodies and mechanisms should include monitoring and regulating public institutions and private entities covered by the law; receiving annual reports from such institutions on their compliance with and implementation of the Law; to hear appeals against denial of access to information; to undertake audits to assess the level of compliance; impose fines and/or other sanctions for non-compliance; carry out search and seizures in appropriate cases; produce reports on implementation; promote awareness of the Law and provide advice to strengthen the Law and its implementation. National access to information frameworks should progressively move towards empowering oversight bodies and mechanisms to perform all of these functions.

Oversight bodies should be adequately funded, staffed and equipped to ensure that they provide effective oversight in the implementation of the law and should not be subject to partisan political control.

Oversight bodies and agencies should be properly trained to ensure that they understand their functions and powers under the Law and to enhance their ability to perform their functions effectively. In this regard, oversight bodies and agencies in Africa should create a platform for networking, and knowledge and experience sharing.

Civil society organization should systematically monitor oversight bodies and their operations to assess their level of independence and effective functioning and where public institutions are not in compliance, CSOs must develop and support public interest litigation to enable information requesters' access information and justice.

The conference was organized by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in Nigeria and sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) II project. This is a joint project funded with contributions from the European Union, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Korea International Cooperation Agency and the UNDP.

The conference had participants representing Freedom of Information oversight bodies, public institutions, the military, anti-corruption agencies, civil society organizations, professional bodies, academic institutions, the media and other interest groups.

The above Statement was unanimously adopted by the Africa Regional Conference on Freedom of Information Implementation in Abuja on the 19th day of March, 2014.

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