Finding the political will to enable access to public information in Zambia
April 1, 2010
The often stated reason for the slow pace of enacting access to information laws in the region has been the lack of political will. In attempting to define the term political will, Craig Charney argues that political will is the sum total of opinion, intensity and salience. Opinion, he suggests, begins with the simple fact of having an opinion on the issue being debated. Intensity here is how strong the opinion is and salience being how important the opinion is to the public’s choices or affairs. The Zambian government which is tasked with giving life to the right to access information through enacting laws, certainly has a strong opinion on whether to allow access to public information, which is an important issue to public affairs and choices. The problem, however, is that the opinion formed seems to be that allowing access to information will open doors for abuse by the media. The opinion that it needs to form is that allowing access to information will allow accountability and transparency that will impact the lives of the average Zambian citizen. The political will exists, only it is towards disallowing access to information.
On 22 November 2002, the Freedom of Information Bill (FOIB) was tabled before parliament. On 18 December 2002, parliament withdrew the bill for “wider consultation”. Responding to a question posed to him in Parliament by MP Sakwiba Sikota, Vice President George Kunda reiterated that the government was still conducting consultations particularly because of the potential that irresponsible media could use it for espionage with an aim to destroy the country. He stated that the potential for improper use of the bill raised concerns about state security.
While consultations on the FIOB carry on, the NCC on 18 February 2010 rejected article 56(1)(a) of the Willa Mung’omba draft constitution that guaranteed the right to access information. The NCC is made up of 495 individuals from various stakeholder organisations to represent various sectors of the Zambian community. This body is tasked with debating, deliberating and adopting the new constitution with a view to presenting to the public a document that will reflect popular views. This body’s composition includes, in the majority, members of parliament, party officials and councillors. I feel that the Zambian government again expressed its political will (to dis-allow access to public information) through the constitution making process.
The opinion that the media will abuse the right o access information is certainly important to the Zambian population as it denies them a right that has the potential to alter many aspects of their daily lives including their socio-economic rights. The right to information according to the former Chair of the South African Human Rights Commissioner Jody Collapen is “… not something that lives in the air, or something that thrives within Academia, but is in the day-to-day lives of citizens and in the important decisions they take around bread and butter issues.” This, to the Zambian legislator, should be the understanding of the purpose of this right. It is, most certainly, much more than a right to enable the media’s freedom of expression. My conclusion is therefore that, in order for the government’s political will to shift towards pushing for the express guarantee of the right to access information, what has to be altered is the opinion that government holds on allowing access to information.