Access to information promotes transparency and accountability

Information is arsenal to fight corruption, promote good governance, transparency accountability, and integrity, says Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International Kenya.

“So for us, as Transparency International Kenya, access to information is a key right, which we have advocated for actively in the last 21 years of our existence in Kenya,” she said.

Masinde was speaking as a panellist at a Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria discussion commemorating the International Day for Universal Access to Information on September 28.

Masinde was joined by Dr Shanelle van der Berg (South Africa Human Rights Commission), William Bird (Media Monitoring Africa), Advocate Lebogang Stroom (Information Regulator in South Africa), Tabani Moyo, (MISA Zimbabwe), Sandra Waswa (Article 19 Eastern Africa), Alfred Bulakali (Article 19 Western Africa) and Hlengiwe Dube from the Centre of Human Rights at the University of Pretoria who moderated the discussion.

Commissioner Jamesina Essie L. King, special rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was the keynote speaker. She said access to information is a basic human right.

“It is also an enabling right and a vital tool for realising a variety of other political, social, and economic rights; just as there is no democracy without the protection of human rights,” King said.

Access to information is particularly important in the COVID-19 pandemic where multiple African governments have been accused of misappropriating COVID-19 funds and obscuring information.

Sub-Saharan Africa ranks the lowest on the Transparency International 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index with an average score of 32/100.

Masinde said that paints a bleak picture of inaction against corruption in Africa, considering the global average of 43/100.

Bulakali highlighted that African countries face a number of challenges in accessing information. This includes a culture of secrecy and limited capacity and resources for media and activists to conduct investigations where information is not proactively provided.

“We can’t dissociate access to information from other freedom of expression rights,” he said, bringing attention to other rights including the right to protest, the protection of journalists, human rights defenders and whistleblowers.

Zimbabwe is a country that has no mechanism to protect whistleblowers, Moyo said.

“The law is weak in terms of protecting whistleblowers. This is also compounded by the fact that the level of corruption is structured to the extent that the law is weakened for the purpose of further consolidating the same,” he added.

Moyo said this has spilled over to Zimbabwean media where investigative journalists such Hopewell Chin'ono wear targeted for their COVID-19 corruption exposes.

“Their online accounts [were] allegedly tampered with, both Twitter and Facebook, with the sole purpose of trying to expose the whistleblowers who are feeding the media with which records pertaining to the corruption around the procurement of COVID-19 protective equipment and protective wear,” he said.

The world is an age where people’s data and information is constantly being collected. Waswa said it is therefore important for the right to privacy to be safeguarded.

“Essentially, the right to privacy gives individuals, groups, institutions the right to determine for themselves when and how information about them is being communicated to others,” she said.

Since COVID-19 hit, there has been an influx of both reliable and malicious information about the pandemic. Van der Berg said there is widespread uncertainty and fear in society.

“It's therefore imperative for the government to ensure that credible information and updated information really flows to create and foster a relationship of trust between government and its citizens. We, therefore, are certainly reliant on proactive disclosure,” Van der Berg said.

Find the full discussion here.

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