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Zambian government must move ahead with access to information bill

This statement was originally published on misa.org on 10 May 2015.

It is public record that the Patriotic Front (PF) government promised immediate enactment of the Access to Information (ATI) legislation as one of its flagship activities for further liberalisation of the media environment once elected into office in 2011.

This was widely received as a move that would transform Zambia into a truly participatory governance system that enables its citizens to make informed decisions, which – in-turn – impact and add value to the process of development.

The highly anticipated presentation of the ATI bill has stalled on more than five occasions consecutively since 2011 (the original ATI bill process having started in 2002) with the government citing what can be termed as insubstantial reasons.

On February 12, 2015, the Honourable Minister of Information and broadcasting informed the nation that he would ensure the ATI bill was tabled in Parliament when the house resumed sitting on February 24th, 2015 (this session adjourned sine die on March 27th, 2015 without the bill being presented still). At a press briefing on March 2nd, 2015, the Minister announced that the ATI bill was submitted to the Attorney General's Office for clearance pending presentation to Parliament.

While this is a positive step, we hope it is an honest indication of concrete will to actually see the ATI bill enacted into law in Zambia. This is so, because in the past, the same excuses and inconsistencies have been used to delay the presentation of the bill.

It is worth noting that in a ministerial statement to Parliament on March 27, 2015, the minister of Information did not indicate any plans to present the bill neither did he update the house on the process leading to the presentation of the bill.

As time is fast running out (with very few parliamentary sittings before the 2016 general elections), the risk of another missed opportunity as experienced in the past four years of the Patriotic Front's rule is again imminent.

In order to consummate the Minister's pronouncement on the ATI bill, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia Chapter is proposing measures to compel the government to present the ATI bill before the 2016 general elections, at the earliest possible time.

The following are the proposals:

1. Government should indicate (through a roadmap) a timeline of the processes leading up to the presentation of the bill with an estimated timeframe for public accountability.

2. Government should circulate the revised version of the draft ATI bill to allow for review and participation by members of the public, pressure groups and other stake holders. This is important because the bill is for the people, the citizens of this country who should be involved throughout the process.

3. Citizens must begin to demand for the immediate enactment of the ATI bill. There must be creation of understanding on the essence of the ATI bill.

4. Government should not politicise the ATI bill; there should be concrete assurance from the officers concerned to ensure that there is no chance of U- turning at any stage. A social contract should possibly be signed.

Why ATI

It has been proved severally that ATI is not only a fundamental right but also a means to power, because – once individuals have the right information – they will be in a position to respond and make appropriate/informed decisions concerning how they are governed. They will also be in a position to meaningfully participate in the decision making process of their country.

Similarly, MISA Zambia annual research project on public access to information, entitled 'The Golden Padlock', which looks at the most secretive and open government (and quasi-government) institutions in Zambia, has revealed that government institutions are very secretive.

Additionally, the 2013 Corruption Perception Index released on 3rd December, 2013 by Transparency International shows that Zambia was ranked 83rd in the world. And, a scam was recently uncovered in which alleged officials from the Ministry of Local Government and Housing were suspected to have diverted Constitutional development funds (CDF) by simply preying on the lack of action by the stakeholders due to insufficient information on the actual amounts allocated to their communities.

With such instances, it is clear that ATI has a serious role to play in society and this is a trend being reflected by other democratic countries in Southern Africa and beyond. It is our hope that the ATI bill is presented to Parliament without any hurdle.

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