18 February 2013
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) is currently discussing draft Access to Information legislation in Banjul, the capital of west-African country The Gambia, according to a University of Pretoria statement.
From 18 to 23 February the human rights commissioners will fine-tune the Model on Access to Information, a proposed piece of legislation (or ‘model legislation’) that the Commission has developed. The model legislation is expected to gain ACHPR approval at the current meeting in Banjul; at which point the Commission will urge its member states, including Swaziland, to implement the model and bring it into reality.
“Member States may elect to adopt this Model Law as it is or adapt it. They may adopt it as a whole or in part. Whatever the manner in which a State decides to utilise the Model Law, efforts must be made to ensure that in the process adoption or review of national legislation on access to information, the principles and objectives of the Model Law are observed to the utmost,” says ACHPR in its introduction to the draft law.
“It is only by adherence to the spirit and objective of this Model Law, that its potential to establish transparency, accountability and public participation in the decision-making process can be realised.”
The Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA-Swaziland), a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech, commends the ACHPR’s efforts to shine a spotlight on access to information. In Swaziland, it is extremely difficult for the media and the public to access public information – information that is owned by the public, not the state, and therefore the public have a right to view it and then act upon it as they see fit.
Among the objectives of the model legislation reads: “to give effect to the right of access to information as guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights,” specifically, “any information held by a public body or relevant private body” and “any information held by a private body that may assist in the exercise or protection of any right.”
In 2011 research on access to information MISA-Swaziland found that Swaziland’s Constitution, within its rights and freedoms provisions, guarantees and protects the right to freedom of information. However, the country does not have Access to Information legislation. This means that the government and public institutions are not obligated to disclose any information they hold.
The Official Secrets Act of 1961, for example, makes it difficult for the citizens and the media to access information held by government and public institutions. Moreover, there are no formal procedures, or weak procedures at best, for accessing information, nor are there known mechanisms in place to appeal against any government official who, on his own, decides not to disclose information.
In the accompanying report to the model legislation, the ACHPR says: “Access to information is of growing international and regional concern, and is a topic on which African States are increasingly undertaking legislative reform. Properly implemented access to information legislation holds the promise of fostering good governance by improving information management, and by enhancing transparency, accountability and greater participation of persons in public affairs.
“By exposing corruption and mismanagement of resources, increased transparency is likely to lead to improvements in the enjoyment of socio-economic rights and to contribute to the eradication of under-development on the continent…
“Once adopted by the ACHPR, it is expected that the Model Law will guide Member States in their adoption or review of access to information laws, and provide uniform benchmarks for evaluating their effective implementation.”
MISA-Swaziland, in its renewed push to advocate for credible and enforceable Access to Information legislation, welcomes the ACHPR move. We look forward to engaging Swazi citizens, civil society, and leaders in the new parliament after elections later this year, to craft and pass local legislation.
The model legislation was initially presented to the ACHPR during its 52nd Ordinary Session last October in Yamoussouro, capital of west-African country Ivory Coast.
For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director