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