In Africa, Freedom of Information legislation began to be implemented in the early 2000s. Two decades later, more than half of the continent has embraced FoI laws in both public affairs and governance. This has substantially reduced secrecy in public affairs, as the expansion of FoI continues to advantage journalism, media development and good governance on the continent.
Access to Information (ATI) has been referred to as the “mother of all rights”. Without it, best practices in public administration management and good governance in Africa are unattainable. In countries that have embraced ATI, transparency is increasingly becoming the rule, and secrecy the exception.
The Open Government Partnership (OPG) provides governments with another incentive to adopt ATI laws. Any government vying for the OPG is compelled to embrace transparency and allow access to public records and information.
Despite this, only 25 African countries have adopted ATI laws. The slow pace of ATI adoption can be mainly attributed to governments’ fears of giving open access to investigative reporters, corruption crusaders, researchers and ordinary citizens. Many governments still confuse ATI legislation with media laws or do not understand the benefit of transparency, good governance, and citizen participation in public affairs.
The situation requires new and innovative approaches to engage such governments
The adoption of FoI in Africa differs between countries. Of the 25 who have adopted ATI laws, some have fully implemented the law and its regulations, while others are yet to put in place regulations and oversight mechanisms to monitor implementation. Therefore, accessing information remains challenging in many countries, even where ATI laws have been passed.
Despite this, ATI has largely enhanced the scope of journalism, especially investigative reporting. In places where ‘undercover’ journalism was contentious and slammed as controversial, unprofessional, unethical, and denounced by public office holders and public figures, the advent of ATI legislation has made it possible to officially request public documents and records during investigations.
The proactive disclosure of records and information held by public and private bodies has also become easier with the advance of digital technologies. Governments and public entities now use websites and social media to disseminate public documents, records and information, although there is room for improvement.
Legislated and well-implemented FoI is crucial to enhancing quality expression, ethical journalism and media development. Access to information and public records has positively impacted the development of the media and the quality of their output and enhanced good governance in Africa. Going forward, the challenge is finding the best way to regulate and navigate through the quirks of the digital era and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
*Gabriel Baglo is a journalist, expert, trainer and consultant in communication and media development; and also an advocate for press freedom, freedom of expression and access to information. He is the communication champion for the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). He was the director of the International Federation of Journalists for Africa (2003-2017).