Zambia Promises but no Action: 12 years waiting and still counting

18 December 2014

By Edem Djokotoe

The author is a Ghanaian journalist and media consultant.  This is a chapter from a recently issued State of Right to Information in Africa Report 2014 and is reprinted with permission. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Zambia’s Access to Information Bill is currently in limbo, three years after the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) government promised to enact it once they were elected into office. When the party won a landslide election victory in October 2011, the draft law had been on ice for 12 years, albeit in another form–as the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill. It was a Bill that was commissioned by the local media community after a decade–long process driven by the Media Reform Committee and drafted and tabled before parliament by the Movement for Multi–Party Democracy (MMD) government, which ruled Zambia from 1991 to 2011.

In spite of the differences in name, the object of the two draft laws was the same–to remove the cloak of secrecy from government information in accordance with the democratic principles of accountability and transparency and to make it more accessible to the public.

Election Promise Broken

Enacting the law was an election promise the PF insisted it intended to keep, unlike its predecessor, whom it accused of lacking the political goodwill to enact it.

Vice President Dr. Guy Scott announced that government would pass the FOI Bill within 90 days. He was speaking to journalists at the State House on 8 October 2011 shortly after the Republican President, Michael Sata, swore in Lieutenant– General Paul Mihova as Army Commander. Scott said the government would enact “progressive pieces of legislation like the Freedom of Information law aimed at delivering development to the people of Zambia” and appealed to the Opposition not to block it in Parliament.

Government’s timeline for enacting the FOI Bill was shifted a month after the Vice President’s pronouncement from 90 days to six months by the then Information Minister, Given Lubinda. He said as a sign of good faith, his ministry would hold weekly meetings with journalists from the public and private media to show government’s commitment to creating an enabling environment for media freedom in the country.

Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services announced that the Freedom of Information Bill would be “launched” on June 26, 2012. The announcement was well received by the media fraternity and by a number of civil society organisations. The Transparency International Executive Director said the enactment of the law would make the fight against official corruption easier.

2012 Deadline Missed

However, when June 26 came, Information Permanent Secretary Amos Mapulenga said the Bill would not be “launched” as promised because the Attorney–General, Mumba Malila, had not signed it as he was out of the country. He said a new date would be announced once the draft Bill was signed.

No new date was announced thereafter, but in an interesting turn of events, Lubinda was replaced as Information Minister. When Kennedy Sakeni, a former career intelligence officer in the Zambia Security Intelligence Service, was appointed as Information Minister one of the first things the new minister did was announce that the FOI Bill would be presented to Parliament in the first quarter of 2013. He asked the public to be patient, saying the delay in tabling the Bill had been caused by “the lengthy consolidation process”.

By this time, the name of the Bill had changed from “Freedom of Information” to the “Access to Information Bill”. The change was effected by the government–appointed task force on ATI to address government’s concern that freedom of information already existed in Zambia, and as such there was need to harmonise the name of the draft law with its stated objectives.

2013 Deadline Missed

Interestingly, the ATI Bill was not tabled in first quarter of 2013 as Sakeni had announced. Instead, his successor, Mwansa Kapeya, a former broadcaster, told Parliament that on October 11, 2013 his ministry and the Ministry of Justice had contracted a consulting legal firm and given it a month to review the 11 existing laws that would conflict with the ATI Bill, including the Constitution, the Zambia Security Intelligence Service Act No 14 of 1998 and the Official Oaths Act.

The deadline for reviewing the conflicting laws passed a year ago, and to this date there is no official government position about whether the Access to Information Bill will re–appear in parliament and exactly when it will be enacted into law. The current Information Minister, the fourth Zambia has had in three years of PF rule, is yet to commit to a timeline for submission and enactment of the draft law.

Uncertainty  Draws Complaints

The uncertainty surrounding the future of the ATI Bill has displeased sections of Zambian society. Cornelius Mweetwa, an Opposition MP for the United Party for National Development (UPND) has accused the government of running out of excuses about why the draft law has taken this long to enact. Mweetwa, who is also the UPND’s deputy spokesman, said an Access to Information Act would give life to other anti–corruption–related laws such as the Public Interest Protection Whistleblowers Act of 2010.

Isaac Mwanza, Governance Advisor for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in Zambia, said the government had wasted taxpayers’ money to hire a legal consultant and bog down the law–making process when it had no intention of enacting the ATI law. “If cabinet and government had realised the bill would be in conflict with existing legislation in the country, why did cabinet proceed to approve it?” he asks.

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