Reporters: Salem Ayele, Abraham Tegegne and Mengistu Ebabey
“Put actions behind the words” is an expression that reminds us to think of the implementability of laws and conventions after they are well designed on paper. Experts have been heard questioning some documents like guideline on Access to Information and Elections in Africa.
According to the Guideline on Access to Information and Elections in Africa, the right of access to information guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is an invaluable component of democracy, as it goes a long way in facilitating participation in public affairs. The importance of the right of access to information is underpinned by the fact that it is a crosscutting right. It is a right that is necessary for the realization of other human rights, including the right to participate in government directly or through freely chosen representatives, as guaranteed by Article 13 of the African Charter.
Access to information empowers the electorate to be well informed about political processes with due regard to their best interests: to elect political office holders; to participate in decision-making processes on the implementation of laws and policies; and to hold public officials accountable for their acts or omissions in the execution of their duties.
A fundamental element of democracy is the freedom to choose political leaders through elections. Free and fair periodic elections expose candidates’ records and proposed policies to a level of public scrutiny that is capable of positively influencing the responsiveness of elected representatives
As general Principles, the guideline states the vitality of the Right of Access to Information. The right to information is guaranteed in accordance with the principles of every person has the right to access information of public bodies and relevant private bodies. And no one shall be subject to any sanction for releasing information.
According to Ololade Shyllon, Human Rights Lawyer and Independent Consultant, access to information is the legal right of citizens, and media are interested to know the criteria of political parties about their leadership system. Free, fair and credible election will be possible if government and media work in collaboration in the access of information.
Shyllon also raised the issue of requiring voters to register their identity during election. She says “in South Africa, voters are asked to write their Address and Identification numbers for national security reasons, but what about their privacy? There should be a balance between the national security and voters’ privacy”.
Saikou Jammeh, a journalist and media and freedom of expression right advocate argues that the Guidelines on access to information and elections in Africa have incorporated the general principles that are necessary to allow the healthy flow of information between governments and media. However the problem is implementation. He adds “there is a lot of uncertainty in Gambia, the current government is still in power even though 2019 was the year for a new election. The guidelines are not implemented at all.”
Bethlehem Woldeyohannes, Media and Communication consultant and writer, explains how the Ethiopian Constitution grants the right to access to information with restrictions on security considerations and economic interest of the country. And how the current situation of the country makes it uncertain to know whether Ethiopia is having the election next year or not. She says “The current situation of Ethiopia regarding the new reform and stabilizing the country with the new changes made it uncertain whether Ethiopia postpones the election or not.” About the practicality of the guideline, Bethlehem adds “if there is any complaint regarding the implementation of the guideline, taking cases against the government to courts would be unthinkable.” She also explained how getting information from the government is difficult especially for the private and independent media in Ethiopia. She also added how party affiliation is an important factor to be a PR officer which in one way or another affects access to information.
Kudakwashe T. Hove, a legal and ICT Policy Officer, a Media officer of Southern Africa, has also stated that “if participatory democracy is restricted, governments would also restrict access of information which results on denying the right of media to access any information regarding the political condition of the country.” Hove added, “even though there is a technology advancement in Zimbabwe regarding the use of different social media like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, accessing information becomes impossible because the government shuts down the internet access for days. Even though we have the necessary law and platform that allows the right to access information, we may not have the people to implement it”. He also explained how there is restriction in access to information, privacy and freedom of expression.
The panelists revealed how implementing the Guideline of Access to information and Elections in Africa is difficult because of the different reasons mentioned above.