On 22-23 September 2006, representatives of 30 civil society organisations from 16 countries in Africa met in Lagos to discuss ways to promote the right of access to information held by public authorities and, in particular, to share experiences regarding strategies for advancing the adoption of laws that fully protect this right.
The Regional Workshop on Freedom of Information in Africa was organized by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in collaboration with the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and received expert presentations from Freedom of Information advocates from Albania, Bulgaria, and the United States.
Observations and Resolutions
The participating organizations expressed concern that Africa is lagging behind in the global movement towards the adoption of Freedom of Information Laws.
The organisations hereby:
• recall African instruments such as the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, which requires States Parties to adopt measures that guarantee access to information; the Treaty of ECOWAS, which encourages the free flow of information within national borders as well as regional cooperation in the area of information; and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, issued by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which affirms that “public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information”;
• call on governments to guarantee and respect the right of access to information consistent with African and international law and best practice;
• note with concern the increasing tendency to view access to information as a threat to public safety and security;
• affirm that access to information is essential for the protection of other human rights and contributes to accountability, social stability, security and economic development;
• note the value of access to information in the fight against corruption, as recognised by international treaties;
• in particular, urge all countries in Africa to sign and ratify instruments such as the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption and the UN Convention Against Corruption, which require States Parties to adopt measures that guarantee access to information.
In light of the foregoing, we call on governments in Africa to work with civil society organisations to draft bills and adopt laws that respect, at a minimum, the following principles:
1. Access to information is a right of everyone. Anyone may request information. There should be no citizenship requirements and no need to justify why the information is being sought.
2. Access is the rule – secrecy is the exception. Information held by government bodies is public in principle. Information can be withheld only for a narrow set of legitimate reasons set forth in international law and also codified in national law.
3. The right applies to all public bodies and private bodies performing public functions. The public has a right to receive information in the possession of any institution funded by the public and private bodies performing public functions, such as water and electricity providers.
4. Making requests should be simple, speedy, and free. Making a request should be simple. The only requirements should be to supply a name, address and description of the information sought. Requestors should be able to file requests in writing or orally. Information should be provided immediately or within a short timeframe. The cost should not be greater than the reproduction of documents and mailing, where applicable.
5. Officials have a duty to assist requestors. Public officials should assist requestors in making their requests. If a request is submitted to the wrong public body, officials should transfer the request to the appropriate body.
6. Refusals must be justified. Governments may only withhold information from public access if disclosure would cause demonstrable harm to legitimate interests, such as national security or privacy. These exceptions must be clearly and specifically defined by law. Any refusal must clearly state the reasons for withholding the information.
7. The public interest takes precedence over secrecy. Information must be released when the public interest outweighs any harm in releasing it. There is a strong presumption that information about threats to the environment, health, or human rights, and information revealing corruption, should be released, given the high public interest in such information.
8. Everyone has the right to apply for a review of an adverse decision. All requestors have the right to a prompt and effective judicial review of a public body’s refusal or failure to disclose information.
9. Public bodies must maintain and manage records, and should proactively publish core information. Every public body should make readily available information about its functions and responsibilities, including a list of the types of documents and information that it holds, without need for a request. This information should be current, clear, and in plain language.
10. The right should be guaranteed by an independent body. An independent agency, such as an ombudsperson or commissioner, should be established to review refusals, promote awareness, and advance the right to access information.
Regional Freedom of Information Centre
In order to provide a platform for cooperation and collaborative activities among civil society organizations in the region, the participants agree to establish a regional Freedom of Information Centre in Africa, where experiences garnered in the different countries can be pooled and shared among civil society activists and which will provide technical assistance to organizations involved in any stage of Freedom of Information advocacy or implementation.
Adopted in Ajah, Lagos, 23 September 2006. Endorsed by representatives of the following organisations:
Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Senior Legal Officer for Africa, Open Society Justice Initiative
Programme Assistant, West African Civil Society Forum
Coordinator, International Press Centre
Programme Officer, External Relations, Media Foundation for West Africa
Research Assistant, Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia
Nana Oye Lithur
Director, Africa Office, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
Coordinator, Network of African Freedom of Expression Organizations
Executive Director, Centre for Media Studies and Peace-Building
Executive Director, Liberia Democracy Watch
Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai
Executive Director, Society for Democratic Initiatives
Executive Secretary, National Forum on Human Rights
Sarjo M. Camara
Executive Member, Gambia Press Union
Coordinator, Citizens Governance Initiative
Mr. Maurice Nguefack
Board Member, Transparency International - Cameroon
Dr. Emmanuel Kam-Yogo
Lecturer in Law, University of Doula
Director, International Federation of Journalists - Africa Office
Assistant Juridique, La Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme
Francis Pédro Amuzun
Président, Observatoire Togolais des Médias
Ibrahim Famakan Coulibaly
President, West African Journalists Association
Director, House of Media of Benin
President, West African Editors Forum
Advocacy and Networking Officer, Human Rights Network – Uganda
Priscilla Nyokabi Kanyua
Programme Officer and FOI Project Coordinator
Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya)