To Know or Not to Know

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By Sampa Kangwa-Wilkie

– The Battle for the Right to Information in Southern Africa

1.0. Introduction
Information and knowledge are probably the most distinguishing features between the poor and the wealthy. The adage information is power has never been more meaningful in an age where information is at the centre of political, social and economic life (Naughton 2005). Today more than any period in history, information rules. Those who have information at their disposal have power, those who can control its flow have even more power.

The media, the rich, the government are perceived as powerful, because separately and collectively they control not only information, but how it flows, to whom and when.

On the contrary those without information, otherwise known as the ignorant are left to suffer. James Madison, one of America’s founding fathers, couldn’t say it better “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.”

Some say ignorance is bliss, in fact ignorance is destruction, ignorance is destitution (Tseng 2007).

The perception of knowledge and information as abstract concepts can no longer hold, because their power to make or destroy lives, are immeasurable. With information, millions of lives could be saved before, during and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Even more than food aid, people struck by disasters are in dire need of information first. (Tseng 2007)
With this background and the understanding that information is an indispensable basic human right, the Media Institute of Southern Africa has made access to information its core and priority campaign.

1.1 Defining the Right to Know
Access to Information, also referred to as the right to information, freedom of information or the right to know is simply the call to make information held by public and some private institutions available and accessible to citizens.

The right to information is not merely a call for government records, but a call for transparency and accountability in the governance process. Public bodies hold information not for themselves, but as custodians of the public good, as such information must be accessible to the public – in this respect right to information laws reflect the fundamental premise that government is supposed to serve the people (Mendel 2008)

It should be clarified from the onset that the right to information is by no means a media right; it is a right affecting all citizens. In fact ordinary citizens, like you and me, more than the media are affected by the lack of information because really the media have their own way of getting the information they need and when they need it.

Furthermore the distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of information should be clarified. Freedom of information or the right to information is different from freedom of expression. Although interdependent they are independent. The one depends on the other; a person needs information in-order to exercise freedom of expression. A voter needs adequate information about political candidates before casting a vote; a woman needs information before she can exercise her reproductive rights and choices. In a way information becomes the pre-requisite for meaningful expression.

The right to information, hailed as a basis for effective participation in governance as well as potentially a powerful tool for countering corruption, has become an issue of global importance. More than 80 countries have entrenched the right to information in their constitutions, close to 70 have right to information legislation, and another 50 have bills waiting to be passed (Banisar 2006).

As the momentum for the right to information picks up speed, Africa’s state of right to information remains in limbo. Out of 54 only two countries in Africa, Uganda and South Africa, have Access to Information laws; Zimbabwe and Angola have not been mentioned, despite these countries having Access to Information laws. The omission is deliberate. MISA does not recognize the archaic, infamous and indeed retrogressive laws of Zimbabwe and Angola, laws that make it almost impossible for citizens to access information.

2.0. Why the Right to Information
Apart from being a basic right, information and the right to its access have been proved to be central in the fight against corruption.

The UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Union, in which many African countries are members, all recognize freedom of information as an “important guard against abuses, mismanagement and corruption” (Banisar 2006, p. 6), (Tseng 2007, p. 6). This view is backed by research demonstrating a direct link between information and corruption. Corruption thrives on the lack of information.

It is by no coincidence that the ten most rich and least corrupt countries have laws or practices guaranteeing the right for citizens to access information, while the ten most poor and highly corrupt countries have neither policies nor practices promoting access to information. In a continent where more than 80 percent of underdevelopment and poverty is directly linked to corruption, the call for access to information has never been more important.

The right to information is fundamental to the realization of other social and economic rights of health, education and employment. Viewed as the cornerstone of all freedoms, one cannot fully enjoy or exercise the right to vote or to a clean and healthy environment or make informed choices, without the information that would make those rights and choices worthwhile.??????’??

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