South Africa recently hosted the largest gathering of Information Commissioners from 10-13 March 2019 in Johannesburg. The annual convening of Information Commissioners Conference (ICIC) also drew participants from the civil society to address issues that hinge on access to information, transparency and accountability and the rights of the vulnerable when it comes to technology.
The conference- that was held for the first time in Africa- came at a time when access to information is slowly gaining momentum as a human right globally. From media freedom to generally, freedom of expression, access to information is now playing a crucial role in the social and political divide of societies by giving citizens the right to influence pertinent issues of public importance and enable governments to be accountable in their practices and actions by simply being open and disclosing information. Access to information is a cornerstone right for the realization of other rights and the movement for publicly accessible information has grown substantially. In the host continent Africa, 22 countries now have access to information laws. Over 100 countries globally have access to information laws.
Discussions in the conference featured meaningful implementation of access to information and how forging local, regional and global cooperation would enhance realization of the right.
While, access to information has gained quite a tremendous track record globally little has been done to remove structural, practice and political barriers that hinder governments’ capacity or willingness in providing information. Citizens are still limited from freely using information without fear of reprisals to demand for their rights, good governance and access to quality public goods and services.
Open contracting was an emerging thematic area for access to information. Public procurement being key to the provision of quality goods and services to citizens access to information was noted as a necessary pre-condition for the availability of public contracting information in the absence of open data in many countries.
Hivos East Africa in partnership with Article 19 and the Right2Know Campaign co-convened a civil society day on the sidelines of the main event. Key topics to the region’s realisation of the sustainable development goals were discussed and the critical role that access and use of public information plays in these areas. The civil society day discussed Elections as a key governance issue in the region, public contracting in a development context, beneficial ownership and open natural resource governance. The discussions centered around how information is helping citizens to make informed choices, particularly when it comes to developing and sustaining healthy democracies.
Policy and governance experts at the civil society led panel deliberations on the influence of access to information laws on elections and the publishing of procurement contracts as a means to ending systemic corruption.
Insights from Mukeleni Dimba, an independent governance and policy specialist, and former civil society co-chair of the Open Government Partnership steering committee, provided a glimpse into the status of transparency in the electoral processes. ‘’Media’s role in calling for transparency during elections has often been down played. As custodians of relaying information, there’s need to build their capacity to influence objective reporting during elections,’’ he said.
The panel on transparency also indicated that disclosure of information can only thrive in a culture that pro-actively discloses information without needing a nudge.
In the second panel on publishing contracts to drive accountability, Gilbert Sendugwa from the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) narrated that proactive disclosure will not be sufficient for accountability as long as there are no deliberate actions to simplify information and make it actionable for citizens. ‘’When you look at the procurement sector in Uganda, why are some firms still controlling the market? There’s need for the government to be responsive to citizens requests, feedback and recommendations,’’ he said.
Rachel Chagonja, Coordinator of Haki Rasilimali in Tanzania decried the operational context of the extractives sector in Tanzania. While she acknowledged that the extractives sector can reduce a country’s dependency on foreign aid, she indicated that the sector in Tanzania is grappling with political interests that have seen detrimental ripple effects from licensing and contracting processes being shrouded in secrecy. ‘’Companies are hiding information about contracts especially when it comes to sensitive issues such as payment of royalties and taxes. Communities too are yet to benefit from the proceeds of mining,’’ she said.
The event ended on a high note. Participants agreed to forge regional cooperation and influence other front-runners such as the private sector to advocate for enabling open societies where freedom of information can thrive freely to boost development and the achievement of the sustainable development goals.