Wednesday, 30 May 2012

How to fix the Freedom of Information Bill.. with 9 easy Principles

After reviewing the history of the FOI Bill in Tanzania, we can that there has been an obvious inaction on the part of the government on this issue. However that is only half the problem, the other half concerns us, the ordinary citizens who stand to benefit most from information being made public. We also share the blame for inaction that is causing this whole process to move at a snail’s pace.

In the second part of this series, we will use a barometer of 9 principles designed by the transparency advocate NGO Article19 as a yardstick to measure the constitutionality of the FOI Bill of 2006 and how we can improve it.

Before we begin, however it must be pointed out that the initial FOI bill that was published in 2006 had merged the Freedom of Information (or Right to Access of Information) with the Media Services Bill. This incited a lot of the criticism by the stakeholders and they recommended, as we do too, to introduce these two bills separately because despite being related, they do not address the same issue. For the section below we will discuss only the Right of Access to Information which is commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill.

Summary of Uhuru Blog's Proposed Changes to FOI Bill 2006
  1. Submit the Right to Information/Freedom of Information Bill as a separate bill and not together with the Media Services Bill
  2. Remove any exemption to the right of access from public bodies such as Commission of Enquiries [Section 2] especially after the investigation is complete and findings have been submitted.
  3. Set a maximum limit for costs of providing information (i.e could be per page, per CD/DVD etc).
  4. FOI Bill must explicitly state that its principles of disclosure must take precedence over any other Act including National Security Act 1970, Newspapers Act 1976, Civil Service Act 1989 and any other Act which may be used to block requests for information [Ref: Section 56].
  5. The Bill should not exempt public information that is submitted to/by the Cabinet. If the information is sensitive at the time of deliberation, a strict timeframe (for example 6 months) should be set out after which it can be accessed. [Section 27].
  6. Appointment of an Information Commissioner (neutral, respected member of society and must ratified by two-thirds majority in parliament) who is responsible for oversight of the Right to Information Act. The draft FOI Bill calls for a Privacy Commissioner (Part IX) who is tasked more with protecting privacy of information rather than promoting its free access. This may hamper the attitudes that citizens and public officials will have towards this bill. An Information Commissioner should be more focused on promoting transparency as other rights (such as privacy) as adequately covered in this bill and the constitution of Tanzania
The Bill must be praised for its strict adherence to the public interest defence and that any exemption may be overruled in the interest of the public. Also it must be praised for extending the Right to access information from corporation and individuals if sufficient proof can be produced that it is in the public's interest. [Section 2]

From our analysis, it is clear that not a lot of changes are required to make the FOI Bill a truly acceptable bill , one which shows the government's commitment to openness and transparency. Therefore we at Uhuru Blog strongly urge the government to consider changes suggested by the Tanzania's Right to Information Coalition of Media stakeholders as well as urge all concerned Tanzanian's to put pressure on the government  so as a new bill is prepared and passed into law as soon as possible. has a model freedom of information bill based on global best practices which can be used as a template to make it easier for policymakers.

*Relevant sections in the Freedom of Information Bill 2006 (found here) are shown in brackets [ ].

1. Public's Right to Know: Principles of Freedom of Information

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