Calls for Zambia to pass Access to Information bill
ATI conference increases pressure on government to act
The recent regional Access to Information (ATI) conference in Lusaka started with the Zambian Permanent Secretary of Information and Broadcasting Services, Emmanuel Mwamba speaking candidly about the need to empower citizens by embracing ATI.
This refreshing departure from expected protocol was welcomed by a majority of participants at the second regional ACTION conference, entitled Leveraging Continental Developments to Enhance the Adoption of Access to Information Laws in Africa, which was organised jointly by the Zambian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA‐Zambia) and the regional secretariat in collaboration with the African Platform on Access to Information, in collaboration with the Working Group of the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Friedrich‐Ebert‐Stiftung, the World Bank and the Zambia Governance Foundation.
Attendees also included Zambian Members of Parliament, policymakers, representatives of UNESCO, the Southern African Parliamentary Trust, ATI advocates, civil society groups, local community leaders, private sector representatives, stakeholders and media practitioners.
Mwamba highlighted the extent to which government departments safeguarded information by relating how even simple leave of absence requests are marked as classified information.
Then turning back to his the official speech, Mwamba formally welcomed all the participants and said the conference was a welcome development in deepening the country’s democracy and development through the free flow of, and public access to, information.
This was also mentioned by the Chairperson of the African Parliamentarians against Corruption (APNAC), Cornelius Mweetwa in his opening remarks: “it is no surprise that Zambia has been chosen as the location for this year’s ACTION conference, since we are at a critically important stage with respect to our Access to Information Bill.”
“We have been discussing the ATI law for a long time and while the process has stalled a few times, there is no doubt in my mind that we are at a stage where we will soon be discussing the enactment of the Bill,” said Mweetwa.
Mwamba explained that government had commissioned a review of existing legislation that would impact on the provisions of the ATI Bill to ensure that it did not face any impediments when it was finally tabled in Parliament.
This position was reiterated a few days later by the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services, Mwansa Kapeya who told Parliament that his ministry and the Ministry of Justice had given a consulting legal firm a month to review laws that are in conflict with the ATI Bill, including the Constitution of Zambia, the Zambia Security Intelligence Service Act number 14 of 1998 and the Official Oaths Act.
The gist of the conference highlighted the correlation between increased access to information and growth in development.
“ATI legislation is an essential tool for development for any country and its practical value to communities would be empowering communities, particularly in rural areas, with detailed information about various projects from conception of the ideas up to completion. The communities would thus be empowered to ensure transparency in the processing of projects, and accountability for public funds,” explained Matrine Chuulu, Executive Director, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA).
In linking ATI and development, Rongai Chizema Programme Advisor ‐Economic Affairs, for the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST) explained that “transparency is needed to fight poverty, but a culture of secrecy, buttressed by restrictive statutes impairs this possibility. The growth of the world economy and competitiveness is largely driven by the free flow of transparent, timely, and inexpensive information.”
Henry Machina, Executive Director of the Zambia Land Alliance said “The absence of the ATI in Zambia makes it very difficult for his organisation and for citizens to know clearly about what land is available for acquisition.”
He pointed out that without ATI in place it is also difficult to know how land‐related investments decisions are being made, how problems affecting the settlement of displaced people in mineral rich areas are being resolved, what land reforms are in place and what progress if any is taking place.
ATI laws are often seen as media laws, so contributions made by speakers over the two days showed participants that enactment and effective implementation of ATI legislation was of more benefit to citizens than it was to the media.
While the Permanent Secretary closed the conference on a more subdued note than his opening remarks, he was still forthright and stated that the enactment of the ATI Bill would enhance the Patriotic Front’s fight against corruption, management of public resources and save a lot money being lost through dubious procurement processes, which in turn would enable the PF fulfil some of its electoral campaign promises.
The question now is will the government take cognisance of the many calls from across all sectors for the enactment of an access to information law in Zambia and finally live up to its 2011 election promise to pass an ATI bill into law.