Report Excoriates Zimbabwe Access Environment

29 August 2012

Access to information in Zimbabwe is “sternly restricted” according to a new and comprehensive report that sees some hope in the ongoing development of a new Constitution, but otherwise paints a bleak picture.

“The culture of secrecy prevalent in most government departments suggest that access to information is not seen as a right but a privilege that government officials dispense at will,” according to the Executive Summary. “To maintain that secrecy, legislation such as the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act widely limit the information accessible to the public while other legislation like the Public Order and Security Act effectively control dissemination of any information to the public by restricting public gatherings.”

The report was done by Obert Hodzi and Jacqueline Chikakno under the auspices of the African Network of Constitutional Lawyers.

The researchers conducted focus group discussions and interviews, learning that “people in Zimbabwe are generally unaware of their right to access information and the procedure of requesting information from government departments.”

Media domination of the campaign for access to information sent a message that access to information is only for media practitioners, the researchers found. “The effect has been the lack of nationalisation of the access to information campaign. As a result, it has been recommended that civic education to raise the public’s awareness of the right of access to information is essential while at the same time the government is lobbied to implement a proactive information disclosure policy for all its departments.”

While holding out some hope for changes in laws, the authors stress that “the challenge is not just within the stringent legal framework but with the culture of secrecy within the country’s bureaucracy.”

After reviewing restrictive judicial decisions, the authors conclude that “the judiciary effectively incapacitated the public from accessing information from the government while simultaneously bestowing the Executive with unquestionable power to decide on information that can be divulged to the public.” They continued, “Furthermore, it reasoned that unless an applicant for information held by the Government shows that non-disclosure of the information will cause prejudice to any person, the Government is justified in denying access to that information, showing that there is an inherent presumption against disclosure; giving the requester the onus to prove why the information has to be disclosed.”

Another constraint identified is “the very limited role that the Zimbabwe Media Commission mandated to oversee this right plays.”

The legal framework created by several laws “imposes a myriad of exemptions that render the right of access to information unattainable. Thus the current laws do not comply with international best practices, according to the report.

At the functional level, “there are no information officers charged with the custodianship of government information and processing of information requests.” The authors explain further: “The effects are manifold. First there is no record of information or inventory of records that each government department has; secondly, most government departments assume that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Information, Media and Publicity to keep government records for each government department and attend to information requests; thirdly, records are not properly preserved and finally applicants for state-held information are left clueless as to whom to approach and direct their requests for information. Effectively no one in government ministries can be held accountable for not processing information requests.”

Findings and Recommendations

The report includes a series of recommendations, beginning with the statement, “The major challenge to operationalization of the right of access to information in Zimbabwe is the general ignorance of the right and the laws that provide for it. When participants of the focus group discussions were asked to explain what access to information is, the majority of them could neither explain what access to information is nor the kind of information they would want to receive from public bodies.” They attributed this gap to the absence of civic education on the topic, “elitist perceptions of knowing and being aware of public information,” and “the increased chasm between the ordinary people and the state, which has perpetuated the notion among ordinary citizens that unless the government reveals it, it is not important to know it and they don’t not have a right to ask.”

“Additionally, it can be argued that government officials find it convenient for the people to remain ignorant of their right of access to information because it enables them manage what sort of information cascades to the people and to manipulate the information for political advantage,” according to the report.

“Mediafication” of the right to information “has precluded many civil society organisations from advocating more transparency and proactive release of information by public bodies,” the report states, recommending a campaign to make the right to information tangible to the ordinary people.

To combat “an inherent culture of secrecy within the government departments even after the establishment of the government of national unity,” the authors suggest not only “building the capacity of both potential requesters of information and the government on the advantages of transparency and accountability; but also on lobbying the government to reform the act to enhance the right of access to information as well as adopt proactive information release policies for all government departments.”

The constitutional reform process currently underway in Zimbabwe “presents an opportunity for a constitutional provision for the right of access to information and reform of legislation governing access to information,” according to the report.

A revised access law “should have provisions for active promotion of the Act.”

There is “a need for wholesome broadcasting reforms as well as an increase in all forms of electronic media outlets to complement the various print media institutions, now available,” the report also concludes.

Reduced time frames for disclosure of information are called for as are provision to expedite the handling of some requests and to assist the disabled.

Overall, the report concludes that “the ongoing constitution making process presents one of the biggest opportunities for reform of not only the constitution, but all other legislation which impact on ATI. On the other hand, what is also clear is that legal reforms on their own will not be enough to enhance the enjoyment of this right but also a lot of effort will need to be taken to change the operating environment as well as towards a change of mindsets for the citizens themselves.

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