Monday, 28 May 2012

History of Freedom of Information legislation in Tanzania

Freedom of information and the right to access this information is enshrined in almost all constitutions of democratically elected countries. It grants citizens broad access to any information that may impact their lives, including state-held information. Section 18 of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania explicitly spells out these freedoms; 

Section 18 (b) has out right to seek, receive and, or disseminate information regardless of national boundaries; (d) has a right to be informed at all times of various important events of life and activities of the people and also of issues of importance to the society. 

United Nations and African Union have also issued strong statements regarding disclosure of public information such as the following excerpt from the 2004 UN Joint Declaration:

"The right to access information held by public authorities is a fundamental human right which should be given effect at the national level through comprehensive legislation (for example Freedom of Information Acts) based on the principle of maximum disclosure, establishing a presumption that all information is accessible subject only to a narrow system of exceptions."

However, in Tanzania as in many other democracies, such constitutional rights are not backed by specific legislation which mandates the government to release all state-held information to its people on a regular basis or when requested to. These laws collectively are called the Freedom of Information Act (also known by other names such as Promotion of Access to Information) and according to the NGO Article19 over 90 countries globally have enacted such laws to date and many others have these laws in various stages of the parliamentary pipeline.

So how has Tanzania fared when it comes to Freedom of Information laws? An effort was made in 2006 with the introduction of a Freedom of Information Bill (2006) which packaged together Right to Access of Information and Media Services Bill. After consultation with different stakeholders brought together by the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) and the Media Institute for Southern Africa Tanzania Chapter (MISA-TAN), this bill was rejected due to a number of inconsistencies pointed out by various experts. Following this, the stakeholders produced an alternative FOI bill, containing a number of changes which was submitted to government for deliberation in 2007. No concrete submissions (draft bills, recommendations etc) regarding FOI Bill have been made since, and the government have yet to respond to changes made by the various stakeholders including MCT, MISA-TAN and the Tanzania Media Women's Association.

Some comments have been made by various government officials under whose mandate the FOI falls. In 2010 when asked in a parliamentary session to clarify the procedures for accessing information (for MPs in this case), then Minister of State in the Prime Minster's Office Phillip Marmo had this to say:

“The conditions include the ones I enlisted as part of my supplemantary answer, but let it be reminded here that there are huge demands and worldwide, where there is a huge public demand including parliamentarians to access information from government offices there have been some processes including laws providing greater details. Such, is normally called, Freedom of Information Act. In our country, for all this time, we have not received any such demand for such a Law from the general public, parliamentarians or even from the media. This is why we have continued to use the current practice”.

Former Minister of Information and Culture Dr Emmanuel Nchimbi has made a number of comments over the years regarding the Freedom of Information Bill. In January of 2011 he said to a meeting of media stakeholders; 

“The government will do everything possible to make sure that the bill is enacted and implemented accordingly”. 

As recently as March 2012, the Minister again informed media personalities during an award ceremony that the writing of the new freedom of information bill is at an advanced stage. Media stakeholders and CSOs are becoming increasingly concerned about such blatant disregard for and delays in submission of an FOI Bill by the Government. It has been almost 5 years since any significant progress was made and we are no way near to enacting a freedom of information law. As concerned citizens, we at Uhuru Blog strongly urge fellow citizens to follow this issue closely as the potential gain from such an important piece of legislation is immense.

In the next part of this series we will analyse the FOI Bill of 2006 in more detail and propose our own solutions based on global best practices.

1. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
2. MISA-TAN press release on rejection of FOI Bill
3. Africa Freedom of Information center
4. IPP Media article Stakeholders: Enact freedom of information law
5. MISA TAN article on Efforts in search of a FOI Bill Tanzania
6. Tanzanian Constitution 1977 (with amendment in 2005)
7. Freedom of Information Draft bill published in 2006

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