Information Bill progress laudable

PRESIDENT Hage Geingob’s revelation during his State of the Nation Address (Sona) this week that the Access to Information Bill will return for tabling to parliament in this current session is a commendable reality which puts media on the brink of a new chapter.

The bill was tabled in parliament in September 2021 and referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information, Communication Technology and Innovation. Geingob noted this week that he was pleased to hear that the Standing Committee concluded public hearings in February 2022, and the bill will be re-tabled during this session.

Without doubt, the bill is a very positive step towards the creation of a free and pluralistic media in Namibia and the implementation of an effective freedom of information regime. It is lasting evidence of the government’s increasing commitment to good governance through transparency, accountability and public participation that play an integral role in achieving a successful society, economy and democratic environment.

For years, access to information has been a challenge despite government’s transparency mantra since Geingob took the oath of office in 2015. This has also been proven by studies done by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) which exposed this reality in one of its publications titled: ‘Access Denied’.

“It has to be mentioned here that governance in the SOE sector has always been rather opaque, if not downright inscrutable. And once again, the fact that roughly 85 percent of SOEs approached for information were unresponsive also goes to undermine the prevailing narrative of improved governance, transparency and accountability in the state sector,” part of the findings of this research publication outlined.

It is thus encouraging even for us as the fourth estate that the right of people to access information held by public bodies in Namibia is addressed within the overarching scope of this information policy.

Although access to information is an effective means of ensuring that a country’s media remains informed and independent, it is crucial to recognise that the right to information is much broader than this.

If passed, this information law can be a key tool for the public at large to participate directly in the democratic processes of government and hold public bodies and their functionaries accountable to their actions.

We are hopeful that initial concerns in the bill have been addressed and it will sail smoothly through parliament. These concerns involve, the removal of clause 2 (2) (a) (i) which exempts Cabinet entirely from the Act, blanket confidentiality of judicial functions and nomination, selection and appointment of judicial officers and the rationale for the exemptions of some non-profit public entities under clause 29 among others.

Holistically, the value of access to information legislation comes from its importance in establishing a framework of open governance.

In this context, the law must be premised on a clear commitment to the rule of maximum disclosure. This means that there should be a presumption in favour of access. Those bodies covered by the Act therefore have an obligation to disclose information and every member of the public has a corresponding right to receive information.