Law must deepen access to information

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THE promulgation of the Freedom of Information Bill into law and the subsequent repeal of the Access to Information and Privacy Act (AIPPA) were long overdue.

The delay in repealing AIPPA stifled a free, fair and transparent electoral environment as pushed for for years by electoral stakeholders.

The new development also comes after spirited lobbying from both media watchdogs and civil society groups, which include MISA-Zimbabwe and

Election Resource Centre, who argued that freedom of information and access to it are at the heart of participatory democracy and elections.

We hope this is a significant milestone in Zimbabwe’s law reforms agenda that should set the pace for the repeal of other laws that infringe on people’s rights guaranteed in the national Constitution.

Media watchdogs had argued that the right to access information comprises the positive obligation of the State to provide citizens with access to information in its possession, and the corresponding right of individuals to access information held by State institutions.

It is our hope that the passing of the Freedom of Information Bill into law will eventually guarantee genuine access to information that will ensure transparency, accountability and the rule of law and promotes participation in electoral discourse.

It is commendable that the law designates the office of an information officer as the point-persons responsible for receiving and processing information requests; places an obligation on entities to have a written information disclosure policy and; provides for the provision of information in a language requested by the applicant.

However, media watchdogs also note that some key aspects were not included in the new information law despite overwhelming submissions made by citizens during the public hearings as well as the retention of some AIPPA provisions in the Freedom of Information Act.

There is, therefore, the need to ensure that other laws that impinge on the right to access to information, freedom of expression and media freedom, such as the Official Secrets Act, Interception of Communications Act, Censorship and Entertainment Controls Act, and sections of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform Act), among others, are aligned to the Constitution.

Another observation from media stakeholders is that AIPPA did not only focus on access to information, but also had a bearing on media freedom and journalistic rights, media regulation and protection of privacy or information.

This explains why three Bills were proposed for its repeal, notably the Freedom of Information Bill, Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill and Protection of Personal Information Bill.

Of concern to media stakeholders is the current institutional culture towards access to information, which they see as the greatest barrier to success, as the success of the Freedom of Information Act lies in both the willingness of government to be transparent, as well as the ability of citizens to demand information.

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