Information minister Peya Mushelenga has tabled the much-anticipated Access to Information Bill, which is envisaged to give citizens greater access to information. Proponents of the access to information law have long been pressurising the government to promulgate the legislation, which is key to an open democracy. In a 2017 report, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the country’s legal environment remains skewed against access to information, with apartheid-era legislation such as the Protection of Information Act remaining on the statute books.
The report further stated that the culture of secrecy still exists across different sectors in the country - which makes it hard for ordinary citizens to access even non-controversial information and data. Mushelenga tabled the Bill in the National Assembly yesterday, saying it was a growing and regional concern, and a topic on which African countries were increasingly undertaking legislative reform with an understanding that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right.
Therefore, he said, if properly implemented, the access to information legislation holds the promise of fostering good governance by improving information management and by enhancing transparency, accountability and greater participation of the populace in public affairs.
In the recent years, Mushelenga said several regional treaties have echoed the need for States Parties to African Union to prioritise the adoption of access to information legislation in the context of democracy, fighting corruption and ensuring service delivery.
According to Mushelenga, at the sub-regional level, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol against corruption requires states parties undertake to adopt measures to create, maintain and strengthen mechanisms to promote access to information and to facilitate the eradication and elimination of opportunities for corruption.
To this effect, he said, a model law, which is a detailed set of provisions embodying the international, regional or sub-regional standards on a particular subject, has been developed for the purpose of facilitating the adoption of national legislation.
However, he said, a distinction should be made that a model law needs not to be adopted by states in its exact form, but could be adjusted to suit the legal and other realities of each state.
“Thus, unlike treaties, which are binding once ratified and impose obligations on states parties, a model law is a nonbinding document crafted specifically as a tool to guide lawmakers in translating obligations emanating from international treaties into detailed national legislation,” he said.
Mushelenga said the oversight mechanism would comprise of an information commissioner and deputy commissioner to be appointed by President Hage Geingob with the approval of parliament for the purposes of the promotion, monitoring and protection of the right of access to information. “This body should have the power to hear appeals from any refusal by a public body to provide information, along with all necessary powers to effectively exercise this role,” he said.
“This should include the power to mediate disputes, to compel evidence and to review, in camera if necessary, the information which is the subject of the request, to order the disclosure of information, and, where appropriate, to impose penalties.”
In terms of the drafting of the Bill, Mushelenga said parliament is to play a key oversight role with respect to appointments to and funding of the body.
“Consideration will be given to an appointment process that requires either unanimous approval or a supermajority vote,” he explained.
Furthermore, Mushelenga said the body is expected to formally report to and be accountable to parliament.
The Access to Information Bill aims to promote transparency, accountability and effective governance of all public and private bodies, by establishing procedures to do so and also to enable requesters of information to obtain records held by State institutions and by private bodies as expeditiously and reasonably possible.
In addition, the Bill’s objectives include the empowerment and education of the public so as to understand their right to access information, understand the functions and operations of public bodies, effectively scrutinise and participate in decision-making by public bodies that affect their rights.