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Do Citizens Know about their Right to Know?

Theo Dolan's picture

During a working group session as part of the “Access to Information, Media and Accountability” workshop in Dar es Salaam in March, I wondered just how difficult it would be to shift the discussion from advocacy in support of the access to information (ATI) and media services draft laws to key aspects of how to implement these laws. It is no revelation that implementation of access to information legislation is quite challenging, as two other African countries with ATI laws, South Africa and Uganda, have already discovered. But what the workshop in Tanzania (supported by CommGAP) also showed is that even if an access to information law is enacted, people have to be informed enough to use it.

The challenges in implementing an ATI law are many – funding the implementation process, creating an independent information commission, training public officials, etc. Another key factor not to be overlooked is educating the public on their rights to public information. In many developing countries, particularly in Africa, trust in public officials is low, so even if laws are enacted, what impetus do people have to use the law? In other words, why would they believe that information would actually be provided to them? In this case, the media plays a crucial role in conveying information to the citizens about their rights and the public services available to them. And the media has successfully revealed major scandals such as the Anglo Leasing and Goldenberg cases in Kenya and the more recent Richmond scandal in Tanzania. However, while those high profile cases are important in providing accountability and transparency, media can often bypass the more mundane yet equally important topics related to public services. For example, how much tax revenue is used to build roads and which companies are responsible for building the roads? While these are not sexy topics to the media, media coverage of these issues builds awareness among citizens, accountability among officials and mutual trust among these groups over time.

The small group of Tanzanian academics and civil society practitioners at the workshop that was leading the drafting of the stakeholder versions of the ATI and media laws indicated that its members had visited numerous communities across the country in order to gauge how and why citizens value access to information. It will be interesting to see how these communities react when the ATI law is brought into force. How will citizens, civil society groups, journalists, private businesses and others use the law? Will they use it at all? Lessons can be learned from other countries in the region. South Africa is the best regional example in terms of tracking requests for government information. According to the South African Human Rights Commission, 458 requests were made in 2005 and 1065 in 2006 . Although these numbers do not include requests to the police service, only nine percent of the public institutions designated to report requests for information complied. This is a disappointing statistic in terms of building public trust in the government’s ability to provide information, especially since the ATI law was passed in 2000.

In fact, a recent survey by the Open Democracy Advice Centre in South Africa shows that the number of people claiming knowledge of the ATI law fell in 2007 to 25.4% due to poor implementation of the law by the government. So the question is does effective implementation of the law lead to better utilization of the law by citizens? The answer is clearly intertwined with how a government informs the public on ATI, how media cover such issues, and how mobilized civil society actors are in any given country. In Tanzania, and in many other countries ranging from Kenya to Indonesia, ATI advocacy takes years and often outlives several governments. But on the positive side, by the time such legislation is enacted, more people have been informed of their rights and trust has had time to gradually build.

Photo Credit: Flickr User knezovjb


Submitted by Tiba on
I have read the story by Theo on 'Do citizens know about their right to Know?' It seems that human rights activists have a long way to go. We cannot sit down and relax simply because the law has been enacted on Right to information or Media Services. So much efforts are needed to support ATI campaigns. The Citizens in many African countries would not question anything that comes from their popular leaders. When they decide to question, a popular version is also developed by such leaders as a mechanism to justify their arguments and maintain the status quo. Who cares? The state? The Citizens? The Media? I fail to get the right answers. But one thing I think, many African leaders are for their own interests and not for the interests of the people who put them in power. Developed states have been mentioned in various occasions for extending good will partnerships with such type of leaders without considering the impacts to citizens. Yes, there are challenges towards realizing access to information especially where there is not working saystem in place. But the laws, once enacted might serve the purpose. Efforts shall continue to have the law enforced and to support other initiatives for effective enforcement of the said laws. Advocacy must continue. Access to information is the basic right and the touch stone of all rights which all humans are supposed to enjoy. Let's join the activists and tender our support. Tiba

Submitted by Theo on
I agree with Tiba's comment that ATI advocacy must continue. Fortunately, there are dedicated groups in Africa that support free expression and access to information. The International Commission for Jurists in Kenya, the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Tanzania, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Ghana and the Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria are just a few groups dedicated to an open information environment. Regionally, the Africa Freedom of Information Center was founded last year with support from the Open Society Justice Initiative in order to share experiences and build consensus in support of ATI across Sub Saharan Africa. Once ATI laws are enacted, these groups and others will face the myriad of challenges associated with implementation, including informing citizens about their right to information.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Do communities really know their rights??Do they know that they have a rught to access information or do they just wait to be told??An observation i have made in a number of African communities i have worked with is that information is peower in whatever environment.If the leaders withold it, communities remain in the dark and do not get to know their entitlements.Is this fair?? My heart bleeds when civil servants say, we cannot give you this information.They have signed the Official secrecy Act which does not allow them to give information to the public.This effectively means that those with information continue to bully the communities. Let us move ahead and empower the communities not only to go onto the streets, but to question the intracacies of policies that affect their lives.

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