Tanzanian Assembly Backs Information Access Bill

8 September 2016

Tanzania’s National Assembly Sept. 8 approved an access to information bill.

The Assembly on Sept. 6 opened debate on the bill, with some members calling the bill too weak and urging amendments, according to media reports. Constitution and Legal Affairs Minister Harrison Mwakyembe said he was  “surprised” at the criticisms.

The bill that passed had some minor changes, including reducing the penalties from 15 to 20 years imprisonment for information officer issuing false information to between two and five years, The Daily News reported.

The Tanzanian government in June posted the bill on Parliament’s website (text).  (Final version not available.)

The Citizen’s Samuel Kamndaya reported that members had requested the government to consider four changes. He summarized:

The issues include a provision that allows information officers to withhold information if he/she believes that disclosing it will undermine national security.

Similarly, the MPs want the Bill to issue punishments in accordance with the type of the offence committed, instead of punishing offenders of the Access to Information Act in conformity with the National Security Act.

The other issues the MPs want addressed are with regard to the period that an information officer is required to avail the requested information, as well as on the appeals process for a person – who has been aggrieved by a decision by an information officer – should follow.

Questions were raised about Section 6 of the bill permits the withholding of information “in the public interest.”

A Daily News report on the debate said a number of MPs suggested that the new law contained numerous loopholes and would make requests take too long. Further consultations were proposed.

The law is silent on protections for whistleblowers.

It imposes heavy penalties to information officers for giving information contrary to the law, which some members said should be reduced. See commentary on this provision in The Citizen by Samuel Kamndaya.

Also see critique of bill in August by Deus Kibamba, who in March wrote an article asking whether legislation would ever be passed.

Approval of a bill has taken longer than promised. Most notably, former president, Jakaya Kikwete, promised Sept. 24, 2014, in an address at an Open Government Partnership summit in London, that a freedom of information bill would be approved in February, 2015. he later said passage would come before his term ended. Tanzania’s failure to pass a law despite Kikwete’s well-publicized commitments was  chronicled as a story “of bold commitments but disappointing reality” in a 2015 report by the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. (See FreedomInfo.org report.)

 

The government’s legislative proposals have been criticized as inadequate, most recently in August by the Tanzania Editors Forum, as reported in The Citizen.

“The forum proposed changes in 25 sections in the draft law during a round-table meeting that lasted two hours,” the article said, continuing, “TEF leaders pointed out that if left as they were, some sections would impede journalists’ access to information instead of facilitating it.”

The article also said:

TEF deputy chairman Deodatus Balile noted for instance that Section 11 of the Bill states; “Where the access to information is requested, the information holder to which the request is made shall, within thirty days after the request is received, give written notice to the person who made the request as to whether the information exists and, if it does, whether access to the information or part thereof shall be given.”

He noted that this was too long a period for a journalist to wait for information. “Many of the sections in the draft have loopholes allowing information holders the freedom to decide on when and what information to give,” he said.

 

An evaluation of the pending legislation back in April 2015 by the Centre for Democracy and Law concluded that the draft was “rather mediocre.” (See FreedomInfo.org report.)

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