OMUTHIYA - About 91% of the population in the Oshikoto region who live in the rural areas are deprived of timely information, while only those who live in towns have access.
Oshikoto governor Penda Ya Ndakolo said this on Thursday at a dialogue session of the Access to Information Bill, which was tabled in Parliament. Oshikoto has a population of over 181 973, based on the 2011 population census.
The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT), in partnership with the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), is touring the 14 regions to create awareness on the Bill.
The awareness-creation kicked off with a stakeholders meeting, which was poorly attended, and thereafter a pop-up event alongside the Omuthiya Open Market on the B1 road to reach out to the wider community.
“This is the third time the Bill is going to parliament, and we would love to have everybody involved. Let us deliberate on the issues related to access to information,” said Emma Teofilus, deputy minister of ICT.
The Bill was tabled in parliament in June last year, but Covid-19 lockdowns scuppered debate on it, and it was again tabled in September as it had lapsed. The aim of the long-awaited Bill is to promote free access to information held by public entities, and to compel both public and private entities to make information available without hassles. ICT minister Peya Mushelenga said when tabling the Bill on 15 September 2021 that “this Bill seeks to address the important issues of transparency in government, and to guarantee our citizens freedom of information and the right to access public information, as well as improving accountability and citizens’ relationship with government. The Bill recognises the need to make sure our people have access to information held by public institutions and about their government.
“The Access to Information Bill is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in our quest to maintain Namibia’s democracy.
The Bill strives to complement, enhance and create a conducive environment for members of the public to access public information timely and without due hindrance”, Mushelenga stated.
The Namibian media have been asking for an access to information law for some time now as their work depends on having swift access to reliable and credible information to hold public officials and institutions accountable.
In 2017, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) conducted a study to determine to what extent over 100 state-owned enterprises and regulatory bodies, private and civil society institutions and organisations would be responsive to specific information requests from researchers.
In ‘Access Denied’, the IPPR found that 80% of all organisations and institutions did not respond, or could not provide the information requested. Nearly 60% of targets simply did not respond to information requests in any meaningful way. Roughly 85% of public enterprises approached for information were unresponsive. The combined unresponsive/information not available rate among state agencies and special offices was also slightly above 85%. This must surely raise questions about the levels and quality of the oversight of public assets and resources.
Out of the 14 regions, just one, Erongo, responded with the information requested, and in a reasonable time. The proposed law states that information officers working for public entities can be punished if they provide incorrect, incomplete or misleading information. According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression that includes freedom to uphold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers. Namibians have the power to influence the decisions of the governing bodies. The stakeholders were advised to use the platform to voice their contributions and recommendations. UNESCO representative to Namibia Yang Wang emphasised that access to information is a universal right, and contributions from all stakeholders are therefore
of utmost importance. She added that it serves a purpose for the ICT ministry, with the help of the Law Reform and Development Commission,
to come up with the recommendation report to be presented in parliament. “The government institutions should prepare themselves for the Bill by availing information centres to make information accessible to communities. Let us make use of notice boards to paste information,” said Herman Kangootui, chief information officer at MICT. Although people should have access to information, Kangootui cautioned that not all information should be accessible. When it comes to confidentiality and security, there is a purpose for classified information. For instance, some information on the defence force cannot be compromised as the force is protecting citizens. Omuthiya mayor Johannes Ndeutepo acknowledged complaints by some of the participating stakeholders who claimed to not have received the draft Bill, emphasising that this was a sign of how ineffective the communication and information-sharing system is. “Communication cannot be done by the legislature only. We have to do it ourselves, hence we need to improve when it comes to communication,” he observed.
Community members who are willing to give their contributions to the draft Bill are welcome to do so until 25 October 2021.