The Access to Information in Namibia (Action) coalition yesterday expressed concern over the Access to Information Bill, calling on members of parliament (MPs) to refer it to a committee for fine-tuning.
Information minister Peya Mushelenga last week tabled the much-anticipated Access to Information Bill, which is envisaged to give citizens greater access to information.
The coalition in a media statement said it considers the Bill as tabled by Mushelenga to be strong, which for the most part captures the essence and contains the necessary substance of a modern, workable access to information framework.
However, the coalition said there are a limited number of important concerns with specific sections of the Bill that it feels need to be addressed with the aim of making the eventual law and regulatory framework even stronger.
“The blanket exemption for “proceedings and decisions of Cabinet and its committees” in the Bill is too broad and not an international norm,” read the statement, adding that they recommend the removal of clause 2 (2) (a) (i) which exempts Cabinet entirely from the Act.
According to the coalition, this should be substituted with a new provision exempting information about Cabinet deliberations until a period of 10 years have passed, but do not provide any exemption for executive decisions and resolutions, or for factual information submitted to Cabinet or its committees.
In addition, the coalition said all Cabinet materials (like other government documents) should be subjected to the public interest override in clause 64.
“Blanket confidentiality of judicial functions and nomination, selection and appointment of judicial officers (clause 2) goes too far,” the coalition said.
The coalition also proposed for the removal of clauses 2 (2) (a) (ii) and (iii) and substituting them with more narrowly-worded provisions which exempt from the Act only material relating to the deliberations of judicial officers and judicial selection bodies – without shielding from the public other information about the operations and the decisions of courts and tribunals, or information about the nominations, qualifications and appointment of judicial officers.
“The rationale for the exemptions of some non-profit public entities under clause 29 is unclear. We propose either the complete removal of clause 29 or clear criteria for the exclusion of certain “public entities” from the coverage of the Bill if there is a rational motivation for any such exclusion,” the statement read. Also, the coalition said the definition of “personal information” in clause 1 may be too broad while at the same time excluding some issues that should be covered - and the procedure for dealing with situations involving third party personal information in clause 38 seems too cumbersome. Thus, the coalition proposed drafters re-consider the definition of “personal information and also to streamline the access process, saying that the law should enumerate more specific exemptions to the protection of personal information to give guidance to the exercise of discretion by information officers.
“The law should not equate inability to locate the third party in question, or a lack of response by the third party, with consent to the release of the information,” reads the statement. According to the coalition, the wording of the public interest override (clause 64) is too narrow and thus the coalition proposes changing the “and” in clause 64 to “or” in order to broaden its scope.
“The ATI law should be inapplicable if the disclosure is reasonably regulated by another law,” explained the statement.
“Clause 3(3) should be reworded or omitted since some other laws may have rules about access to information which are appropriate to their context – without necessarily being more or less “favourable” to access.”
Furthermore, the coalition said the selection committee for the appointment of the information commissioner described in clause 6(2) should consist of five persons.
“We propose that the media ombudsman (who could be defined in the law) should be an additional member of the selection committee, which would also provide a better government-civil society balance,” the statement reads.
“We further propose that interviews of short-listed candidates for Information Commissioner should take place in public,” it added.
The coalition says clause 12 contains a broad definition of “private entity” of which it proposes that the appropriateness of the current definition be discussed with the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI) and the Namibian Employers’ Federation (NEF), to ensure that it will be practically workable.