AD452: Access denied - Freedom of information in Africa falls short of public expectations

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Dispatches
2021
452
Joseph Asunka and Carolyn Logan

The African Platform on Access to Information (2011), adopted a decade ago by a group of leading African media and information stakeholders, recognizes access to information as a fundamental human right. Since endorsed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2019) and the Pan-African Parliament (2013), the platform stipulates that “information held by public bodies is public and as such should be subject to disclosure.” It further states that “the right of access to information shall be established by law in each African country. Such law shall be binding and enforceable and based on the principle of maximum disclosure. The law shall take precedence over other conflicting laws that limit access to information.”

Although the impact of information disclosure or transparency on governance and service- delivery outcomes is an ongoing debate (Gaventa & McGee, 2013; Fox, 2007), researchers and practitioners generally agree that transparency is a necessary condition for responsive and accountable governance (Open Government Partnership, 2018).

While only a handful of countries had access to information (ATI) laws when the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) was adopted, the efforts of advocacy and watchdog groups in the global Open Government movement 1 have at least partly paid off: ATI laws now cover about half of African countries (African Platform on Access to Information, 2013; Selvick, 2020).

However, this still leaves many prominent countries, including some that have traditionally been regarded as leading democracies, such as Botswana and Senegal, without laws protecting ATI. Moreover, the laws that do exist vary widely in quality (Right to Information, 2020), and enforcement and implementation are mixed at best (Article 19, 2020a). In some cases, contradictory laws that restrict access to information are still on the books as well,2 and are often given precedence (Asogwa & Ezema, 2017).

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted these weaknesses in legal protections and implementation of ATI laws. Activists and journalists have been harassed and arrested for releasing government statistics or otherwise reporting on COVID-19 in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and elsewhere on the continent (Article 19, 2020b, 2020c; Repucci & Slipowitz, 2020; Amnesty International, 2020). And numerous governments have used concerns about purported sharing of fake news about the pandemic as a pretext to restrict media and information sharing (Budoo-Scholtz, 2020). In short, open government initiatives have made significant progress over the past decade, but still have a long way to go.

What do Africans think about access to information? Do they believe in their right to information? To what extent can they access information held by local public officials? Does access to information shape Africans’ views about their governments?

Data from recent Afrobarometer surveys show that most Africans favour access to public information. Consistent with the provisions of the APAI, Africans broadly reject the notion that public information should be the exclusive preserve of government officials. However, their ability to access public information, especially information held by local officials, remains limited. Majorities believe that it would be difficult to access information about their local school budgets as well as their local government budgets and development plans. The only exception is access to information about how to start a business, where most Africans report greater ease of access.

And there may be some ripple effects. The findings show that those who believe it would be difficult to access school and local government budgets and development plans are also more likely to view key elected national and local government officials as corrupt.

For policy makers and civil society, these findings point to a need to do more on the supply side of access to information, especially at the local level. People experience their governments more intimately at the local level, and their local experiences shape their overall evaluation of government. Opaqueness around local government and school budgets and related development plans not only denies people their fundamental right, it also undermines their assessments of how government officials perform their jobs.