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In its 2017 State of Access to Information in Africa report, the Open Democracy Advice Centre (Odac) studies 12 African countries in terms of their access to information (ATI) laws and practices. The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Of the 12 countries under scrutiny, 10 of them do have access to information laws in place while Namibia and Madagascar have access to information bills in motion. This is an improvement, says Odac, on the previous survey conducted in 2015, where Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi only had bills in progress.

Countries were reviewed against the standards of the African Union Model Law on Access to Information, which was the first model law adopted by the AU on any topic. The model law on ATI was brought into being with a dual purpose:

  • To ensure that legislative drafters and policy-makers address all issues relevant to the African context in their adoption or review of access to information legislation.
  • To serve as a benchmark for measuring compliance with regional and international law.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which adopted the AU model law in 2013, hoped the creation of this document would encourage countries to draft progressive and considered laws.

South Africa’s law is the best

While South Africa has a long legacy of access to information because its law has been in existence for many years, says Odac, the country’s implementation of the law has been inconsistent and weak. However, the recent establishment of the Office of the Information Regulator is a significant development that should be consistently and enthusiastically monitored.

Odac’s methodology gave South Africa’s law the highest score of 78%, but the lead was narrow as Malawi scored 77% and Kenya scored 75%. The remaining countries scored in the 40s or 50s, and the average was a 61%, meaning that in general, the laws reviewed only achieved best practice vision of the AU model law in 61% of their text.

South Africa’s rating, says Odac, is unsurprising given how it has traditionally been lauded as a strong law. Furthermore, the laws of Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania – in the top four with South Africa – all came into being after the adoption of the AU model law, while the laws of the bottom four – Niger, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe – all came into being before the AU model law.

It is worth noting that Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa are members of the Open Government Partnership.

Respondents noted that only Mozambique regressed in terms of its environment of access to information.

Although the sample composition and respondents varied between 2017 and 2015 the average score given to the countries sampled was below 5 (4.8 and 4.4 respectively). The state of access to information therefore seems to be consistently mediocre, Odac notes.

Problems with the implementation of ATI laws are often associated with a lack of awareness of the laws, and weak political will for implementation. Both of these factors, says Odac, highlight the important role ATI activists must play in developing the positive discourse around ATI to both encourage users, as well as bureaucratic and administrative actors.

There is also generally a very weak implementation of proactive disclosure, and low levels of technology use to facilitate access.

Why is access to information important?

The African Platform for Access to Information (APAI) says that the right to access to information at its core is about knowledge, and power, and having the tools available to challenge and monitor power effectively.

When citizens have access to information, they not only possess more knowledge but they also participate more effectively, therefore access to information is a foundation for a good democracy. Because people are the primary stakeholders in a democracy, information that affects them should not be secret – unless there is a security or confidentiality factor – and it should not be made available only when officials feel like doing so. By providing people with knowledge, a good government holds itself accountable to them, it makes its dealing transparent, and it allows them to make informed democratic choices.

Freely accessible information should be the rule, says APAI, and not the exception.

APAI also describes ATI as a powerful enabler of other rights. This notion is expressed in Sustainable Development Goal 16, which focuses on access to information and accountability as central to a development agenda, and seeks to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.