The need for freedom of information is one of the themes of this year’s World Press Freedom Day that is marked to0morrow (Saturday 3 May 2008).
And nowhere is this more needed than in Swaziland. Swaziland is not a free country and even though the kingdom has a new constitution that enshrines freedom of expression, people are not able to discuss openly many topics. Nor are people able to hold their government to account. One reason for this is that the people are not entitled to get information from government, public bodies and suchlike institutions.
The Times of Swaziland has tried several times over the past months to force the Swazi government to reveal information about how it awards its contracts. There is a suspicion that the way tenders for goods or services are awarded is not above board. The dreaded C-word ‘Corruption’ is everywhere to be seen.
The Times’ efforts have been rebuffed by the government that believes that information is ‘classified’. Or to put it in plain language: ‘secret’. The government doesn’t want to tell the people what it is doing, because, I suspect to do so would expose that it is corrupt, but also expose the general incompetence of government that many people suspect lies at the heart of Swaziland’s many problems.
In 2007, the Swazi Parliament issued a draft bill on freedom of information. The first objective of this bill is to ‘Encourage a culture of openness, transparency and accountability in public bodies by providing for access to information held by these bodies in order to enable every citizen to fully exercise and protect their constitutional right of freedom of expression.’
There are, however, major flaws with the draft bill. One is that it doesn’t require governments to disclose information as a matter of routine. Instead, it wants people who seek information to jump through a number of hoops before the information will be released. This is not only time consuming, it is costly. The effect of the bill if it became law would be to in theory make information available, but in practice it would make very little difference because people would find it nearly impossible to get at the information because of the huge bureaucratic wall that will be built to stop them.
I notice that there has been very little public discussion on the draft bill since a stakeholders’ workshop took place in March 2007 – more than a year ago. I suspect like so many ‘reforms’ in Swaziland, this one has been quietly shelved because the ruling elite doesn’t really have a commitment to it. Who knows it may never see the light of day again.
In Swaziland it is easy to bury unwanted change. Remember, the Swazi Constitution took 10 years to write so that in the end the traditionalists got their way and no real change has been forthcoming.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) which drives the World Press Freedom Day has published some ‘background’ information on the main issues of the event. To view all the information click here.
This is what Unesco says about access to information.
Access to information
Information can change the way we see the world around us, our place in it, and how to adjust our lives in order to maximize the benefits available through our local resources. Fact driven decision-making can significantly alter our political, social and economic perspectives. The right to access information can be interpreted within the legal frameworks that support Freedom of Information as it applies to information held by public bodies, or in a wider sense to encompass both access and circulation of information held by other actors, where it becomes intrinsically linked to Freedom of Expression.
Freedom Of Information and the transparency it promotes, has a direct consequence on fighting corruption, which in turn has a tangible impact on development. Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn often identified government corruption as the primary hindrance to development and an independent media sector as the number one tool to fight public corruption.
The Basis of informed decision-making
Information is power. Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression work against the concentration of information within the hands of a few. Of course, all information is subject to interpretation. For this reason, the clearinghouse function of an open and pluralistic media sector is critical to a better understanding of any issue. In terms of encouraging the empowerment of citizens, Freedom Of Information is at the heart of a participatory democracy.
Consider the consequences of an uninformed electorate going to the polls; consider the consequences when information flows are curbed or manipulated in times of political crisis or ethnic strife. Freedom of Information promotes a true sense of ownership within society and therefore gives meaning to the concept of citizenship.
The practicalities of access
Freedom of Information does not guarantee access. Even if governments were to become models of disclosure through e-governance by putting their information online, without a means to access that information people would not be more empowered. Internet connectivity and IT resources have become crucial to unhindered access to information. This is also true for accessing national or international news or even simply to provide a plurality of media options.
If the absence of connectivity or equipment can highlight the digital divide and the ensuing knowledge gap that separates developing and developed countries, groups within a country can also become further marginalized by their inability to access information on the Internet. We must not underestimate the importance of access to technologies and infrastructure, which are still cruelly lacking in many parts of the world. What can the concepts of “digital revolution” or “information society” effectively mean to 80% of the world’s population who still have no access to basic telecommunication facilities, or to approximately 860 million illiterate individuals, or to the 2 billion inhabitants of the planet who still have no electricity?
The priority given to narrowing the digital divide in every respect is therefore fully justified. Learning to use new technologies or, in other words, building media and information literacy must be a primary objective as these advancements are coming in the area of information access and sharing.
Ensuring freedom for the media around the world is a priority. Independent, free and pluralistic media are central to good governance in democracies that are young and old. Free media can ensure transparency, accountability and the rule of law; they promote participation in public and political discourse, and contribute to the fight against poverty. An independent media sector draws its power from the community it serves and in return empowers that community to be full a partner in the democratic process.
Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression are the founding principles for open and informed debate. New technology will continue to evolve and allow citizens to further shape their media environments as well as access a plurality of sources. The combination of access to information and citizen participation in media can only contribute to an increased sense of ownership and empowerment.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FIGHT