Namibian Video Downplays Access Issues, Activists Say

28 April 2016

A new video in Namibia effectively promotes the virtues of access to government information, but seriously downplays the practical difficulties of actually getting information, according to activists consulted by FreedomInfo.org.

The video paints “a somewhat rosy picture,” observed one Namibian activist, “fine rhetoric masking a rather parlous situation.”

The government has yet to propose an access to information (ATI) law, an issue not discussed in the video. Nor does the video address how hard it can be to obtain information, as described by Namibian activists to FreedomInfo.org and documented in several critical reports.

Namibia Media Trust chairperson Gwen Lister summarized: “The President talks about an open and transparent regime, but we’ve yet to see it happen. Journalists do struggle quite a lot with accessing info from government officials, and most of the ministerial websites are out of date.”

Promotional Value Appreciated

The 11-minute video uses a range of interviews to describe many ways in which citizens could benefit from government information and why it is important for the monitoring of government activities.

“It is not a favor that the government is doing to its citizens,” stresses Tjekero Tweya, Minister of Information and Communication Technology, in the video, “Access to Information for Development” that was produced by Joe Vision Production and underwritten by the British High Commission in Namibia.

“Even in the absence of a law, our government acknowledges that access to information is our right,” the video’s narrator states, referring a constitutional provision.

Tweya says, “It is not a favor that the government is doing to its citizens.” He continues: “Once a decision is made, it the right of citizens to know about it. But also it is the right of the citizens to exercise their right responsibly by inquiring through the same means for if they don’t the government will not necessarily know that things are happening the way they should.”

The video’s focus on promoting the value of information is consistent with an ongoing civil society campaign, Natasha Tibinyane of MISA Namibia explained to FreedomInfo.org. The group is the secretariat of the ACTION Coalition, which currently includes nine media houses, individuals and civil society organizations committed to the development of an ATI law as well as greater awareness on ATI as a fundamental human right. The campaign was launched toward the end of 2012.

“We’ve had a number of achievements, such as consultations between journalists & government communicators, building the capacity of civil society to advocate for ATI, the Community Declaration on ATI, developed by the listeners of community radio station Base FM & the Children’s Declaration on ATI, developed by children participating in MISA’s programmes,” Tibinyani said.

The video’s launch was followed by a panel discussion of journalists and activists, and Minister Tweya, reported The Namibia Economist. One attendee told FreedomInfo.org it was a “fairly abrasive encounter.”

Describing the comments of the transparency advocates, The Economist said:

They were all in agreement that even though policies and regulations are put in place for the public to access this information, most of the time it takes forever to get the information or the case might be that nobody has a clue about what is going on in their own Ministries.

“It was also noted that Namibians are way too passive and that they really do not make any effort to get the information, process it and give feedback, and that it was a norm for them to accept no for an answer without disputing it,” the article states.

No Access Law on Horizon

Access to information legislation has been mentioned by government officials for years, but never been introduced. Activists have consistently called for such a law.

“Government has given several verbal assurances that an access to information law will be enacted since the “Towards Greater Transparency Conference” in 2012, but this has not come to fruition,” according to the 2015 Padlock Report by the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

The State of Right to Information in Africa 2014, published by the African Centre for Freedom of Expression, stated (in a chapter co-authored by Tibinyane):

Though freedom of expression and human rights are guaranteed in a democratic Namibia, secrecy prevails, as there is no access to information law that requires the availability of information in the public domain, nor a communication policy that guides public service information officers on how and when to communicate with the public.

Furthermore, Namibia’s legal framework encourages secrecy and confidentiality, as a number of laws deter the release of State–held information

Although several Namibian activists have written that the Constitution provides no ATI guarantee, Tweya indicated in the video that it is a right. And in the past he has referred to it as a human right. Article 21 of the Constitution protects “freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”

“I want them to start exercising that right,” states Eileen Rakow, a senior official in the Ombudsman’s office, in the video. “I want the citizens not just to accept `no,’ ” she says.

She hints at the fragility of the system, commenting, “Basically we depend on the good will of public institutions to provide access to information.”

There are new signs of activity on the legislative front, as described to FreedomInfo.org by Tibinyane:

Ministry officials began working on an ATI policy last year, that process is delayed, but we know that they started on a draft law a few weeks ago because they requested documentation, etc. that could assist them. The challenge I think is that our government would rather not have an ATI Law, but are keeping appearances, because they know it has become a major developmental indicator.

Difficulties Getting Information Described

“Some ministries are more open than others, but they are in the minority,” according to Tibinyane, citing the conclusions of MISA’s Padlock report which looked at the performance of individual  agencies. The report concluded in part: “We, yet again, found that the performance of a public institution with regard to access to information is dependent on the individual or the lack of an individual responsible for public relations.”

Graham Hopwood, Executive Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, told FreedomInfo.org: “As researchers we struggle to obtain information, data, and reports from government. There is no ATI right in the Namibian Constitution and no specific law that enables access. As a result, it’s very much down to the whim of the public official you are dealing with.” Hopwood said he would prefer a more explicit ATI provision in the Constitution.

“We do see government making strides in certain areas,” Hopwood said in the video, adding, “But it is not an across-the-board situation across government.” He continued, “Certain ministers and certain parts of government do see the importance of access to information.”

“Government officials often talk of transparency but in reality it’s not often borne out by the availability of documents,” Hopwood elaborated to FreedomInfo.org, providing specifics:

For example, the IPPR has been struggling since 2013 to obtain a copy of the country’s Delimitation Report which recommends changes in regional and constituency boundaries. Although this had a strong bearing on national elections it has never been released and therefore citizens do not know why regional borders were changed or why new constituencies were created.

Another example would be the progress reports for our national development plan that runs from 2012 to 2017. Despite a stated commitment to release regular reports none have actually been made public and the plan has almost run its course.

A final example would be the annual reports and financial statements of many state-owned enterprises such as the national airline and the company that runs the national parks. Such reports have not been released for the past seven years. Since these SOEs are taxpayer-subsidised it means billions of taxpayers’ Namibian dollars have never been accounted for.

“If we had an ATI law this may help,” Hopwood commented, “but there is also a fear that government would turn such a law into a protection of information act and close off whole areas of data and information (Africa’s experience here has been mixed so you have to be careful what you ask for).”

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