West Africa: more transparency, accountability and access to information needed amidst the coronavirus pandemic

West Africa: more transparency, accountability and access to information needed amidst the coronavirus pandemic - Civic Space

A shop owner puts up a a coronavirus information poster supplied by Red Cross volunteers conducting an awareness campaign. Sylvain Cherkaoui/Panos Pictures

On 28 September 2020, the world is celebrating the International Day of Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). This year, the conditions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrate in particular the need to ensure access to information.

Fatou Jagne Senghore, Regional Director of ARTICLE19 West Africa, welcomed the dedication of the Day by the UN and urged the countries in West Africa to facilitate adequate access to information, transparency, and accountability of public affairs amidst the coronavirus crisis.

“We cannot celebrate the IDUAI today without paying tribute to the concerted efforts of the advocates across Africa and other parts of the world who tirelessly worked for many years  with UNESCO and its members’ States  to get this important international day recognised  in 2015. Today’s celebration is, of course, overshadowed by the unprecedented health situation the world is facing. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how important accurate information is to fight the virus. A lot has been done in our region, and today, I ask the West African leaders to make access to information part of their priorities in the fight against the coronavirus and to adopt and implement  laws and policies that enforce the right to information.”

“Each voice should count, and each measure and action should be accessible for civil society and citizens in order to foster public transparency and accountability. Citizens need to know how the government manages their health and consequently, their economic life and their freedoms. Information enables them to participate in the decisions-making and implementation of measures. Releasing public information will strengthen the trust that is necessary for the common effort to save lives and build hope amidst the coronavirus pandemic”.

The right to access to information is fundamental for democratic governance, transparency,  accountability, and to combat corruption and impunity. It allows citizens to participate, fully exercise and protect all their rights and contribute to building a rich and democratic environment and ensure effective public services. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights guarantees the right of access to information under article 9 and is further elaborated in the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa (2013), the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa (2017),the revised Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (2019).

“In West Africa, many States have taken legislative steps to open space and make access to information a fundamental right, but there are some who are lagging behind and still don’t have access to information laws.”

Significant progress has been made in recent years in Africa in the area of access to information. Liberia was the first to adopt an access to information law in 2010. Ten states in West Africa followed their example, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo have passed a law on access to information. These countries have demonstrated some willingness to move towards a more open and transparent system and to make West Africa one of African regions with the largest number of countries with access to information laws. This progress reflects the importance of the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa prepared by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. But despite the existence of such laws, their implementation continues to pose challenges as many of these government are reticent to give full effect to these laws in practice.

The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa stresses that an integral part of the right to freedom of expression, access to information is ensuring that citizens have the information they need to participate effectively in the political developments and in decision-making that influences their future. Access to information fosters free exchange and enhances transparency, accountability, and the fight against corruption in public life and enables citizens to protect and enjoy their other human rights. The right of access to information is essential for the public and civil society. Access to information is critical to a balanced society and good governance. Freedom of information provides a framework where the citizens participate in the management of public affairs through citizen control. Access to information allows civil society to develop more fully their role as watchdogs.

Speaking at the OGP 2020 Virtual Leaders Summit, Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria recognised the importance of access to information and citizens participation in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic and corruption:

” In these times, citizens are seeking more information, engagement and support from their government […] it is only with open government and working with citizens that we can succeed […] to fight corruption and foster good governance”.

 Olanrewaju Suraju, Chair of the HEDA Resource Centre, an Anticorruption and development organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria, underlined:

“Intended to strengthen citizen participation and the exercise of socio-economic and political rights through citizen control, the right of access to information is an important tool in the fight against corruption and a cornerstone for development. By having access to information, citizens are well-informed and therefore empowered to contribute to governance, which is a fundamental factor in the development of every democracy.”

“The enactment of the Access to Information Act in 2011 [in Nigeria]  is a major step forward for democracy and transparency in a country riddled with corruption scandals. Citizens, civil society organisations, media actors can now request, receive and access public information.  While challenges remain in the implementation of this right, this is the opportunity to call all remaining countries in the ECOWAS space and on the continent to enact legislation on access to information. It’s a right for their citizens and an obligation for the Governments”, he added

Most countries in the region have joined multi-stakeholder efforts such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Many of them have also adhered to regional Treaties. For example, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance aims to facilitate citizen participation, transparency, access to information, freedom of the press and accountability in the management of public affairs. The African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption binding States to adopt legislative and other measures necessary to give effect to the right of access to any information that is required to assist in the fight against corruption and related offences.

Unfortunately, in our region, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau are yet to adopt a law to ensure access to information. Senegal, while being politically and geographically strategic in the region, has many sector laws that promote access to information and has joined different transparency mechanisms but hesitates to legislate free access to information. The government should join the other countries as soon as possible to strengthen the Open Government programme it has integrated.

Senegal did take some steps towards free access to information and  signed the International Declaration on Information and Democracy, which includes the right to information as the first principle, and it joined the EITI and the Open Government Programme, which is currently developing its first action plan to promote transparency, accountability and citizen participation in the fight against corruption. A coalition of civil society organisations led by ARTICLE 19 and the Civil Forum Civil have  campaigned for the adoption of an access to information law for more than ten years with promises from government to pass the law.

“Today, I want to call on the Senegalese government to complete the process and pass an access to information law in line with their obligations under the African Charter. Such a law will strengthen the Open Government programme, that it had already joined three years ago”, said Fatou Jagne Senghore.

In Gambia, civil society organizations initiated the process for an Access to Information Law in 2016. After a series of reviews, the National Assembly successfully adopted the final report submitted by its ad hoc Select Committee on 25  June 25 2020.  To strengthen the democratic transition and one year ahead of the general elections, the National Assembly should speed up the enactment of the Bill to equip citizens with control power.

“After 22 years of dictatorship, opacity and a climate of fear, Gambians welcomed the change as an opportunity to actively participate in public life, and an end to human rights violations, corruption, and impunity. Without a legal framework on access to public information,  the secrecy and lack of accountability in public life will not change”, said  Fatou Jagne Senghore.

Need to repeal all policies and legislation that undermine the effectiveness of access to information

While essential for building a more open civic space and significant political commitment to transparency and accountability, the adoption of the access to information law should not be seen as an end goal. Indeed, beyond the adoption of the law, the implementation in practice confers the real enjoyment of the right guaranteed by the law. Sadly, across the region, access to information laws are often compromised with, among other things, weak access and enforcement mechanisms,  archives systems, the culture of secrecy and limited capacity and resources for media and activists to conduct an investigation where information is not proactively provided.

“Governments are often not well equipped to respond quickly and efficiently to requests for information. Also, it is not proactively provided and disseminated, sometimes due to lack of resources. Therefore, ordinary citizens are often not aware of the law or their right to information. This is a real challenge for governments.”

In many countries, governments seem to have adopted access to information laws because civil society urged them to comply with their international obligations, rather than because they want to build internal accountability. Worse, some governments have put in place parallel legislations to thwart the full exercise of freedom of information. This has impeded the enjoyment of the right of access to information.

ARTICLE 19 has consistently denounced legislation used to silence the voices of activists and journalists when they criticise public management. For example, in Niger where the cybercrime law was used to restrict freedom of the press or in Nigeria where the cybercrime act was used during the COVID-19 crisis to limit digital rights, including access to information. Similarly, in Ivory Coast where provisions on disinformation are used against journalists and political activists reporting or criticizing the coronavirus public reporting. Guinea recently adopted a law empowering political institutions to control the Media regulation authority, increasing the risk to impact the independence of media. The regulation authority has already threatened to close online media if they do not register. The meddling of political institutions in media regulation governance and the closure of online media are not in line with international standards and are threats to access to information.

“It is essential that all controversial legal provisions and policies that tend to restrict free expression and access to information be repealed or reviewed in conformity with international standards. With effective citizen control, we can  strengthen democracy and socio-economic development in Africa,” said Fatou Jagne Senghore.

Escalation of access to information restrictions and repression amidst COVID-19 pandemic

The unprecedented coronavirus pandemic has left no sector untouched. It has highlighted the importance of reliable information on government’s measures and crisis recovery plans. At the same time, the crisis has shown that a lack of transparency can lead to violations of the rights to expression and information.

ARTICLE 19 has strongly opposed the use of the COVID-19 crisis as a justification to limit transparency, to reduce protection of the media or to silence discordant voices in different countries of the region. Since the beginning of the crisis, ARTICLE 19 has documented:

Principle 35 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa states that no person shall be subject […] to any sanction or harm, for releasing information […] whose disclosure is in the public interest, in the honest belief that such information is substantially true.”

Deploring the repression, Tidiane SY, Journalist and Founder of a Journalism and digital media School in West Africa, reminded that:

“The existence and effective application of access to information laws are critical to the practice of independent and quality journalism engaging citizens in public life.  Transparency and access to reliable information should receive greater attention from the authorities to address citizens’ concerns and expectations. We have observed the governments’ tendency to repress rather than inform people in response to the health crisis in Africa. States must inverse the curb and release adequate information to engage the citizens in the fight against this pandemic and strengthen transparency”.

Fatou Jagne Senghore concluded: “Providing timely information to citizens is not a sign of weakness but of strength and commitment to governance accountability. It could even furtherly help to reduce social tensions and violence in the subregion. Considering the steps made, I believe the people and governments of our region certainly have the capacity to overcome the different challenges that are currently undermining the effectiveness of access to information, transparency, and accountability. I hope that this year’s celebration marks a real improvement in access to information in our region and on the continent. That will give us much better chances to win the fight against the coronavirus.”