Progress Seen in Draft Tanzanian FOI Bill

25 August 2016

By Deus Kibamba

The author is trained in political science and international law. His column first appeared Aug. 24 in The Citizen. The government issued a new draft FOI bill in June. (See Freedominfo.org report.)

In less than two weeks, the Right to Information Bill will be presented in Parliament for its second reading and passing by the august House. The Bill’s presentation is a culmination of ten years of debate and consultations among information stakeholders.

Initially, a document dubbed the “Freedom of Information Bill” was released by the Directorate of Information Services (Maelezo) in 2006. A decade down the line, some of us still have memories of the excitement that ensued from hope that Tanzania was about to get an RTI law.

However, the joy was short-lived after the government came up with a draconian and poorly drafted proposed law that same year. Predictably, the bulky Bill was shot down by media and information stakeholders for obvious reasons and the effort has been worthwhile.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the last ten years. Several ministers and directors of information have come and gone, but we still don’t have and RTI law in place. From minister Muhammad Seif Khatib and George Mkuchika in 2006/7 to Emmanuel Nchimbi, Fenella Mukangara and Nape Nnauye today, the Bill has indeed passed through many hands. At Maelezo, the process has dragged on during the eras of Kassim Mpenda in 2006 to Clement Mshana, Assah Mwambene and now Hassan Abbas. All along, the Bill has remained an important priority for the government and stakeholders alike.

Today, Parliament can claim credit for comprehensive consultations that have gone into the process. It is a satisfying development that at long last, stakeholders are convening in Dodoma this week to give their final views on the Right to Information Bill, 2016 at the invitation of Parliament’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee. The outcome of these sessions notwithstanding, I wish to commend the move. One hopes that the committee will make use of stakeholders’ inputs in fine-tuning the Bill.

Significant Progress, But…

Having looked at the final Bill, I hold the view that significant progress has been made in terms of its content. For instance, the proposed law separates itself from the Media Services context. Furthermore, the Right to Information Bill makes it a right for everyone to access, receive and disseminate information from public offices. Additionally, the draft legislation compels selected private offices, whose activity has the potential of touching on the public interest, to provide information to the public upon request or proactively. This also deserves praise.

However, there is still room for improvement of the Bill even at this advanced stage.

First, given the importance and urgency of the framework to guide the information provision, it should come out clearly from the preliminary provisions that the envisaged Act shall come into operation on a date stated in the body of the law itself. Leaving room for the date to be determined by the minister may be too much of a loophole that is likely to lead to further delays in enacting the law. Unfortunately, Section 1 lacks an express provision that fixes the actual date on which the law will come into effect.

In addition, the Bill is still weak in as far as the scope of the origin of information is concerned. At a time when democracies obligate governmental offices to provide the right of access to information without regard to national frontiers, the Bill limits access to citizens only.

International best practice has it that information is a right for every person regardless of nationality. Luckily, the Constitution of Tanzania adopted this gist through amendment of Article 18 in 2005. Today, the right of access to information in Tanzania is a constitutional guarantee for every person race, citizenship and nationality notwithstanding, according to Article 18b. We must not go below this constitutionally set threshold.

Finally, there are two more areas of the Bill that call for adjustment. The recognition of the right to seek and be given information for natural persons is a half guarantee. Modern legislation on RTI requires that information becomes a right for both natural and legal personalities. It goes without saying that more often than not, organisations seek information from public or other offices than perhaps individual requests by natural persons.

The Bill remains prohibitive in recognising information requests from human persons only. It also still unnecessarily retains a long list of classified items of information, posing a high risk of undue ambiguity ensuing from such provisions.

Save these and a few other points calling for corrective action, the Bill has greatly evolved from its original version in 2006. Ten years of consultations have paid off. Hoping for the best out of the Dodoma processes this week.

 

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