OPINION: Address flaws in the law on accessing information

Wednesday September 11 2019

 

By Peter Nyanje pnyanje@gmail.com

In 2016, the government enacted two important pieces of legislations on media operations. One was the Media Services Act, which has provisions for the promotion of professionalism in the media industry.

This law also provided for the establishment of a number of institutions which would regulate and govern operations of media organs and journalists in general.

The proposed institutions are a Journalists Accreditation Board and an Independent Media Council. However, their operationalisation is awaiting completion of preparations on the part of journalists.

The second was the enactment of the Access to Information Act which seeks to provide for mechanisms which would ensure access to information in order to promote accountability – especially among ‘information holders.’

But – as we shall see herein below – this objective is far from being realised effectively.

Among other things, this law imposes upon information holders – notably those in public offices – the obligation to make information they hold available to people who may need it.

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This seemed like a guarantee to information seekers, especially journalists. But, the law falls short of doing that, as it sets lengthy and bureaucratic processes to obtain information. Besides, it does not provide for censure of information holders who fail to release same to those who seek or need it.

The law gives information holders up to 30 days within which they must release any information they hold.

They must also, as a matter of course, notify information seekers whether or not the information they seek is available – and can be given to them.

It might seem that the law is well-intentioned in assuring the general public that any and all information is readily accessible. But, in a rapidly changing, dynamic world where journalists and publications compete to reach the market, the law as it is today does not help them much.

In fact, this piece of legislation is counterproductive in so far as the government itself is concerned. The administration of President John Magufuli (November 5, 2015 –) has implemented a number of high-profile development projects and programmes.

It indeed is in the interests of the government and Tanzanians at large to always ensure that details of the projects and development programmes are availed to the public as a matter of course.

But, not many Tanzanians know of the finer details pertaining to such projects.

Under such circumstances, it would be to the advantage of the government to put in place a law which releases information of public and national interest soonest.

Instead of acclimatizing Tanzania to the ongoing rapid technological advances, the law takes us back many years, to the era when public information was stored in ‘hard’ instead of ‘soft’ form. In this era when information can be stored electronically, one does not need 30 days and more to ascertain and respond to requests for information – and release same just as promptly.

Again, what is worse is that the law does not provide for penalties for information holders who fail to release requested information without good reason.

The law penalises information seekers who publish distorted versions of the information. The law is explicit that the penalty for doing so it a jail term of not less than two years, and not exceeding five years!

Another regrettable thing is that, while the government has started to use these laws to penalise journalists and media houses, we are yet to see journalists and media houses using the Access of Information Act to demand accountability from information holders who refuse to release requested information for no valid reason(s).

Media houses are censured by the government under the Media Services Act. Journalists have also been implored to make use of the Access to Information Act to seek information from public offices.

There are journalists who have their questionnaires ignored by public officials for long periods. But we are yet to see such stakeholders using the law to press for accountability of public officers who withhold information from journalists and other information disseminators.

Even if the laws have no specific sections which provide for this, journalists and media houses can still appeal to the Information ministry in seeking redress.

On the other hand, the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) has established a ‘Media Violation Register’, which is available online as a platform for journalists to report for the record and appropriate action any and all forms of abuse or violation of their rights.

However, only a very few journalists have been doing this -- and, in most cases, they don’t complain about information holders who have refused to give them information.

This is despite the journos having followed all the procedures required in seeking for it!

We will dwell on this next week to update journalists and media houses regarding the subject-matter.

Peter Nyanje is media consultant based in Dar es Salaam.