The Access to information Bill: What’s in it for the media?
The Access to Information Bill, which has been in parliament since August 201, is expected to become law mid this year.
“We expect the chamber of deputies to be done with the bill by March this year then pass it over to the senate and we hope that by mid this year, we may have the access to information bill passed into law,” said Patrice Mulama, the executive secretary of the Media High Council.
So what will be in it for the media? For one to attempt this question, a tour into the bill’s 40 articles would be recommended as Mulama suggests. “First and foremost, note that this law was drafted to serve more than the media as the right to access information is universal rather than limited to a certain group of people.”
Indeed, article one states that it is intended “to enable the public to access Information possessed by public organs, certain classes of private bodies, public authorities and authorities of certain classes of private bodies and establishes systems and processes to promote proactive publication and dissemination of information.”
The Bill was drafted by the media high council in consultations with stakeholders between 2009 and 2010 before being adopted by the government.
Notable among its objectives is; to promote open government through maximum disclosure of information and facilitate the right of all persons to have access to information held by public authorities and to require that public authorities proactively publish and disseminate information to the public in a useful form and manner in order to further the public interest generally in democracy and development processes in order to promote greater accountability of public authorities and private bodies.
“It’s clear the objectives aim to serve a public need to know through enabling them to access information only that most times if not all the time, the public need to know or access information is always served through the media such as newspapers, radio and TV hence the relevance of the law to the media,” says Gonza Muganwa, a journalist.
Article three articulates the extent of access and formats through which the information could be accessed.
“The right to access information includes but not limited to: inspecting works, documents or records; take notes, extracts or copies of official documents or records; take official samples of material; or obtain information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, and video
cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through print-outs where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device,” states the article.
Article four and five are more of ‘taking/restricting’ articles as they discuss exempt information and harmful information to national security respectively.
For instance, article four states that access to some information maybe denied or withheld by a public organ or certain classes of private bodies to which this law applies where disclosure of such information would among others cause harm to the national security; impede the due process of law or ends of justice or involve the unwarranted invasion of the privacy of an individual.
But article five clarifies that the minister in consultation with the
Ombudsman, the National Commission for Human Rights and the Minister responsible for matters relating to national security shall develop guidelines through ministerial decree to define when and how information is qualified as harmful to national security.
“As media high council we absolutely have no problem with the two articles putting in consideration that access to information like any other rights is not absolute, meaning that it can be regulated or restricted and besides, conserving national security is also in the interest of the public,” explains Mulama.
Mulama adds that it will therefore be important for the media to measure and balance two sides of the public need to know and that to protect national security which in a way is also an onus incumbent upon any responsible journalist to preserve
This is why article six is vital as it explains what ‘public interest’ means and what qualifies information to be of public interest explaining that public organs or a private body shall disclose information where the public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to protected interests. Though it’s not clear who measures this need the article gives guidelines to disclosure.
According to this article, the need for public interest to know will arise if the information sought upon publication will promote accountability.
“In my opinion this law takes nothing and brings in nothing new for us in fact they are just legalizing and formalizing some of the practices that we have been undertaking already such as applying to access information from some offices and all that,” says a journalist with an online publication.
He’s talking about article nine which requires members of the public or journalists for this matter to apply to access information through a public information officer as established in article eight.
“My only prayer is that public information officers should not regard themselves as public relations officers but as persons there to aid members of the public, including journalists, to access information,” said Mulama.
Some journalists are also not be happy with article ten that gives an information officer two days to accept or reject the application.
In a situation where the application has to be transferred to another public body, this has to be done within five days. The organ to which the application is forwarded will have ten days from the day of receipt to reject or accept the application. In case of permission, an appointment will have to be arranged. If one was to actually follow the law, it would take on average about a week or more before someone can get access to the required information.
But Mulama does not agree. “I am sure the days mentioned in the draft are only maximum and am sure it’ll be possible for the public information officers to provide the information sometimes instantly or in the shortest time possible depending on the nature of information requested,” he says.
There are fees to be paid. Article 14 allows organizations to charge a “reasonable” to allow access public information.
This Mulama says, is not be a problem as the charge in any way should not be prohibitive.
“If organizations use this as a restrictive measure then it will be against the law and punitive measure will be invoked,” he says.