Tanzania Delays Action on FOI Bill, at Media Urging

2 April 2015

Tanzanian officials have decided not to table a freedom of information bill with a “certificate of urgency,” again delaying action on a measure promised by the president more than a year ago.

The handling of the bill, and recent passage of another bill criticized for restricting public speech, comes as the government is about to host a meeting under the auspices of the Open Government Partnership with the title of “Enhancing Accountability through Open Governance.” Tanzania serves on the OGP Steering Committee and the president boasted of his plans to pass a FOI bill at an OGP summit meeting 17 months ago.

The bill was filed April 1 (text). It now goes to committee and is expected to be discussed by full House in May.

The procedural pullback on the FOI bill came at the behest of stakeholders concerned that the government’s plan to speed the bill through would not provide time for adequate debate and consideration of amendments to the FOI bill and to another measure, called the Media Services Bill.

Attorney General George Masaju was quoted as saying, “You media people are the ones who requested for withdrawal….”

The Media Council of Tanzania held a three-hour meeting with stakeholders to discuss the implications of the government’s move to table the bills under a certificate of urgency. After the meeting, representatives from various media houses and civil society groups, including the Tanzania Media Fund, the Legal and Human Rights Centre and Twaweza, lobbied against urgent handling.

A March 28 article by Aisia Rweyemamu in The Guardian Newspaper in Dar Es Salaam said “various media stakeholders came out against” expedited treatment for the bills, “arguing that there was great secrecy concerning the bills because media stakeholders had not been involved in contributing their views.”

Rweyemamu also reported that the Media Council of Tanzania lobbied against rushing to table the bills. Those opposed to the move included the Coalition on the Right to Information.

One journalist consulted by FreedomInfo.org commented, “The government attempt to present the bill under a certificate of urgency was clear indication that it has a hidden agenda.”

Not all stakeholders agreed with the strategy. The Tanzania Journalists Association (TAJA) defended government’s move to table the bills, calling them long overdue, according to a report in The Tanzania Daily News.

Restrictive Bill Passed on Data Use

The concerns about the ATI bill follow recent passage of a law limiting the publication of data to only those from the government’s own Bureau of Statistics, as recounted by an article in The East African. The Statistics Bill 2013 contains a stiff penalty for anyone who published data or statistics outside publications by the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Onesmo Olengurumwa, one of the co-ordinators of the Tanzania Human Rights Defender Coalition, was quoted as saying, “What we see is a move to force on the people what the government wants them to believe.”

OGP Meeting Scheduled in Tanzania

Passage of an access to information bill has been much delayed despite Tanzania effort to project a progressive image on the international stage.

The president of Tanaania, Jakaya Kikwete made headlines in October 2013 at the Open Government Partnership  summit in London, by pledging to pass a freedom of information bill “by next year.” Tanzania has a seat on the OGP Steering Committee.

At an OGP meeting in New York on Sept. 24, 2014, the president said a bill would be approved in February of 2015.

Tanzania will host the second-ever OGP Africa Regional Meeting on May 20-21, in Dar es Salaam. A civil society day will take place on May 19. The theme of the meeting is “Enhancing Accountability through Open Governance.”

Commentary on Secrecy

The secrecy surrounding the FOI bill, and issues with other bills was described in a blog post by Aidan Eyakuze, Executive Director of Twaweza, and Ben Taylor is the author of mtega.com and a consultant for Twaweza.

Their section on the FOI bill says:

1. Access to Information Bill

It does not look good when a bill designed to make information more accessible is itself not accessible. At the time of writing, it has still not been posted on the bunge website, as most bills are, and nor has the responsible Ministry posted it on their website.

It may be that the bill’s contents are progressive and empowering for citizens. But when no-one can see it – even MPs – people will begin to wonder if it could fall into the category of bills that do the opposite of what their title suggests. And when the plan is to present the bill under a certificate of urgency, with very little time for scrutiny, suspicions are raised further. It’s hard to see how a bill promised by the president 18 months ago at an OGP Summit can now suddenly have become urgent.

Voices were raised in protest, including by Twaweza, coordinated by the Media Council of Tanzania. In response, the bill was withdrawn before anyone had seen it.

It reappeared in the timetable for April 1st, hopefully not as an April Fool, for “first reading” (i.e. no longer under the certificate of urgency), and has now finally been made available – see here. (We haven’t yet had time to look at the contents, but will post some thoughts very soon.)

 

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