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Africa

Freedom of information in Africa

Laws guaranteeing the freedom of information exist in only a dozen African states. Citizens and the press suffer from the lack of transparency. Worldwide, only few countries protect this right.

Zambia is one of the more than 40 African countries where freedom of information is not enshrined in law. "There is no political will to provide access to information in Zambia," says Nalumino Nalumino from the Southern African Media Institute (MISA). Those in power are not interested in providing such a law, he says, because if it existed, they would be obliged to provide members of the public with the information they want to have.

Zambian NGOs did succeed in bringing a draft law on freedom of information to parliament. But that was in November 2002 and the law has still not been adopted. "The former regime of the MMD party (Movement for Multi Party Democracy), under which the bill came to parliament, was in power for 20 years and had no interest in creating transparency," says Nalumino. Therefore it blocked everything. The MMD ruled from 1991 to 2011. According to Amnesty International, during this time the lack of the right to freedom of expression, assembly and movement was restricted and journalists were threatened.

Freedom of Information for all citizens

In 1946, the right to freedom of information was declared by the UN to be a fundamental human right.

Mr Nalumino Nalumino, deputy chairman of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Zambia. Copyright MISA:

Many African countries are still debating about freedom of information laws

Citizens should be able to inform themselves about what is happening in their society - for example, by being able to access documents from public authorities.

In Germany, this right is enshrined in the constitution. Everyone has the right to inform themselves from generally accessible sources without hindrance. Freedom of information is not only important for the work of journalists, but also for the flow of information and the efficiency of governments. Citizens thus have a tool to demand accountability from the government. This can also be used to fight corruption.

"Freedom of information is a way to promote informed political participation, strengthen the government as a whole and promote socio-economic development," says Rosario Soriade, consultant for freedom of expression and media development at UNESCO in Paris. UNESCO is committed to the introduction of the right to freedom of information in Africa and organises pan-African conferences on the subject.

African countries still lag behind

In those African countries where there is no such law, nobody can insist on getting information from the government. For journalists this is a major obstacle. "The authorities always find an excuse when they don't want to give us any information," complains Zambian journalist Steven Mvula. "They say, for example, that the information requested is confidential and cannot be made available."

Journalist and media trainer Abdoulaye Diallo has had similar experiences in Burkina Faso. "We are actually harassed when we try and get hold of information. If there was a legal basis, we could refer to that," he told DW.

Poor situation worldwide

Burkina Faso is in a similar situation to Zambia. Media organisations, together with civil society representatives in the country, jointly filed a bill for the protection of freedom of information.

Abdoulaye Diallo, Copyright: Abdoulaye Diallo

Abdoulaye Diallo thinks new laws would strengthen the media in Burkina Faso

Until now parliament has still not moved on this. "The opposition parties are very weak in Burkina Faso. It is the media with their strong criticism that are the real opposition," says Abdoulaye Diallo. The government is dragging out the process, he says, because a right to freedom of information would strengthen the media.

Worldwide, freedom of information is not legally guaranteed in most countries. According to the latest figures from organizations such as freedominfo.org, or right2info, this right is legally enshrined in only 93 countries. Nearly half of them are European countries.

Lack of commitment to transparency

In Africa, "lack of transparency is common in many countries," says Abdoulaye Diallo. Therefore, nearly all African countries have the same difficulties with the implementation of the right to freedom of information.

Even the countries that have already recognized the right have travelled a long and difficult road. In Nigeria, where such a law was passed in May 2011, media organizations had fought for more than ten years. In Zambia, the debate on freedom of information is coming back on track under the new government. Media expert Nalumino Nalumino hopes that a law will finally come into force in 2013.

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