Right to Know Day 2011: Africa strides forward

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28 Sep 2011



The right to freedom of information has experienced both success and adversity since ARTICLE 19 last celebrated Right to Know Day in 2010. New international initiatives, laws and regulations have brought the number of people living in countries with freedom of information laws to approximately 5.3 billion, but many proposed laws remain sluggish and weakened by inaction.

Advancements in the right to freedom of information

At the international level, the most important development has been the growth in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), with 20 organisational signatories and 22 partner countries, including the World Bank, the UK Department for International Development, the United Nations Development Programme, and most recently, the Commonwealth, which has pledged to stand behind the Initiative.

Nearly 50 countries have also joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), including the United States, and 12 countries have achieved compliance.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP)  has garnered commitments from over 40 nations to improve access to information in their countries. There has also been substantial debate on the development of new international or regional conventions on access to environmental information for the upcoming UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit.

Africa strides forward

The most substantial national developments over the past year have taken place in Africa.

There are now ten African countries that have a law or national regulation establishing the right to freedom of information. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed the Liberian Freedom of Information Act in October 2010, the first country in West Africa to adopt a right to information law and after almost two decades of delay, President Goodluck Johnson signed Nigeria’s 2011 Freedom of Information Act in May.

New national ordinances on access to information have also been adopted in the Republic of Guinea and Niger. After years of inaction, Uganda passed its Access to Information Regulations in April 2011, implementing the 2005 Access to Information Act. The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Information, Ms Pansy Tlakula, is progressing quickly on creating a model freedom of information law to set out best practices for countries across the continent.

Many other African countries have also made progress. The government of Rwanda has proposed a fairly progressive bill and Kenya has added a freedom of information law to its list of priority legislation to pass before August 2012. In Senegal, a draft law developed by civil society  received support from the prime minister and government officials, creating a national coalition to drive the bill forward. Mali and Burkina Faso have started discussions on developing laws.

In August 2011, a regional meeting in Nairobi resulted in the promise by Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda of renewed efforts to pass laws, and an undertaking to ensure effective implementation of laws by the governments of Uganda and Ethiopia. Kenya became the first sub-Saharan country to launch the Open Data Initiative, and joined Tanzania to formally lodge their letters of intent to be part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

In September 2011, the Pan-African Conference on Access to Information adopted the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) – a regional declaration indicating support for the right to information principles. The APAI elaborates on the right of freedom of information, and sets out minimum standards for access to information at a national level. The landmark regional declaration declares that the right to know is vital for good governance and a fundamental right of all people.

Other regions moving slowly

In the Americas, the legislative assembly of El Salvador passed the Law on Access to Public Information in December 2010, and the National Assembly of Guyana approved the Access to Information bill on 15 September. The National Assembly of Ecuador approved a law regarding the National Register of Published Information. Chile has seen great success in its access to information law, reporting 53,000 requests in two years. The government of Jamaica is considering repealing the Official Secrets Act.

As one of the founding partners of the OGP, the Brazilian government recently co-launched a multilateral initiative aimed at supporting national efforts around the world  to promote transparency, fight corruption, strengthen accountability and empower citizens. In sharp contrast however, the Brazilian government still has not implemented its own national right to information bill.

In Asia, Mongolia adopted the 2011 Law on Information Transparency and Freedom of Information on 16 June. The government of Cambodia published a draft Law on Access to Information, which has been met with muted praise by international organisations. Selangor became the first state in Malaysia to adopt a freedom of information law on 1 April 2011, and it looks likely that the state of Penang may follow in 2012. On 7 June 2010, Thailand’s Official Information Commission made a landmark decision requiring the public availability of information relating to the environment and health. Also, Indonesia and the Philippines have recently  joined the OGP.

In Europe, the only substantial development is the adoption by Ukraine of the 2011 Access to Information law, signed into effect by President Yanokovych on 3 February 2011. There has also been some progress in the development of a bill in Spain to replace the country’s weak provisions in its Procedures Act.

In the Middle East and North Africa, new national ordinances on access to information were adopted in Tunisia. In Egypt, over a dozen variations of access to information bills have been proposed by government bodies and civil society groups.

Setbacks to the right to freedom of information

One of the most depressing setbacks over the past year has been the killings of right to information activists in India such as that of Sonu Sharma who was hit by a car on 13 February 2011 after her father, Jagdish Sharma, who was also beaten by an iron bar, submitted a right to information request to find out which local officials were siphoning off his pension. At least ten  right to information activists  were killed in similar circumstances, and harassment is increasingly being used to intimidate those who submit requests.

In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party continued to push for the adoption of the Protection of State Information bill, which was heavily criticised for impinging on the right to information, but delayed its final adoption after large public protests in September 2011. In Hungary revisions to the Constitution and the right to information and privacy laws undercut the independence of the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Commissioner, while the government of Poland is currently considering amendments to weaken its law. The European Union Commission continues to push for a revision of its internal regulations, which will weaken the right of European citizens to obtain information from EU bodies.

Several countries other have seen continued long term delays in passing bills. While the government of the Philippines has committed to the OGP, its freedom of information bill remains doubtful after 14 years before parliament and with a president unwilling to commit. The Venezuelan government created a centre to “compile, analyse and integrate” information in the public interest, but still does not have a specific access to information law that secures the right outlined in the country’s 1999 constitution. Bolivia’s weak bill has been before parliament for two years but remains stagnant, and a bill before the government of Argentina remains stalled. The Brazilian freedom of information bill, predicted to have been enacted in 2011 after being approved by almost all government bodies, was delayed at the final stage and is facing significant undermining from a committee overseen by former president Fernando Collor de Mello.

The Sri Lankan parliament, in the aftermath of accusations of widespread war crimes, overwhelmingly rejected a freedom of information bill put before them by the opposition United National Party on 21 June 2011. The Botswana freedom of information bill, although weak, remains stuck, and the government has instead issued a directive to all public servants to sign a declaration committing them to complete confidentiality. In Paraguay, a bill developed by civil society has been approved by the House of Representatives but rejected by the Senate. The government of Colombia is attempting to severely punish public servants who disclose government documents, regardless of public interest, under the Intelligence Bill.

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