The call came during a virtual conference organised by the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) in collaboration with UNESCO, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and media organisations across the continent on Monday, 28 September, to mark International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI).
The virtual conference, “Right to information in times of crisis: Saving Lives, Building Trust and Bringing Hope” brought together more than one hundred participants from throughout Africa to highlight how constitutional or legal guarantees for public access to information can save lives, build trust and help shape sustainable policies.
In delivering the opening remarks at the conference, the Director and Country Representative, UNESCO Addis/Liaison Office to AU/UNECA, Ana Elisa Santana Afonso, said she hoped the commemoration of IDUAI will encourage more countries to adopt access to information legislation and to develop policies for multilingualism and cultural diversity in cyberspace to ensure no one is left behind.
She noted that even though in Africa there is a Model Law on Access to Information, which was adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Right (ACHPR) in 2013, “so far only 25 countries in Africa have put in place national laws on access to information. This means we have an obligation as media partners in Africa to work and support AU member states to put in place this legal framework that would ensure all citizens in Africa will have access to information”.
Taking up the theme, the Head of African Governance Architecture (AGA) at the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission (AUC), Ambassador Salah Saddig Hammad, said that access to information as part of the general framework of freedom of expression is a cornerstone of human rights.
Ambassador Salah said that freedom of expression and, in particular, access to information are essential in enabling participatory democracy. “Citizens cannot exercise their rights to vote effectively or take part in public decision -making if they do not have free access to information or ideas and are not able to express their views freely. Access to information is thus not only important for individual dignity, but also for participation, accountability and democracy”.
He added that violations of freedom of expression often go hand in hand with other violations, notably the right to freedom of association and assembly.
The President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Younes M’jahed, said that access to information is crucial to the work of journalists, especially those working on investigative stories. He urged more countries to adopt access to information legislation, noting that in Africa, almost 50% of countries are yet to do so. He called on FAJ and IFJ-affiliated unions and associations across the continent to work with civil society organisations in their respective countries in engaging their governments to promote access to information legislation as soon as possible where it does not yet exist.
The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), Jamesina Essie King, who delivered the Key Note Address, said that the right to access to information has never been so important. She criticised the failure to make timely, updated information available and reports of restrictions on accessing the internet, blocked social media platforms and other communication services. “These actions or lack thereof can have the deleterious effect of curtailing public access to crucial health information which may be needed not only to protect one from contracting the virus, but also from containing its spread”.
The Special Rapporteur noted with concern that we cannot ignore the fact that at least 30 State Parties to the African Charter are yet to enact national level protection of the right to access to information. She emphasised that there is need for African countries to take greater strides towards guaranteeing the right to access to information both in law and in practice.
The conference sessions discussed three major issues - access to information and the COVID 19 crisis in Africa; the gender dimension of access to information in Africa and the inequality gaps; and challenges in covering COVID 19 and policy guarantees for access to information implementation in time of crisis.
These topics were tackled by a wide range of panellists from various media organisations in the continent including, Article 19, Access Now, African Women in the Media (AWIM), the Ethiopian Media Council, The African Editors Forum (TAEF), IFJ, FAJ and UNESCO.
Panellist and participants emphasised that African governments must go beyond simply putting in place access to information laws but also ensure its effective implementation based on the principles of transparency, accountability and participation.