By Wisdom Mumera
The make-up of the Freedom of Information Bill, repealing the Access to Information Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) whilst more positive, as compared with the Maintenance of Peace and Order (MOPO), fails to break any new ground entrenching the suspicion that real reforms won’t happen under Zanu PF.
Since the advent of the new government, it has been a given that the two laws, including the POSA, had to go and the worry among liberalists and reformists was on how far the regime would be willing to go in bringing real change.
Prominent lawyer Dr Alex Magaisa had cautionary words when news of the repeal first came out.
“Killing AIPPA is one thing. It was long overdue and keeping it on the statute books was embarrassing. What comes after it is far more important and we will be waiting to see it and also to subject it to scrutiny as responsible citizens ought to do,” he said.
Veteran journalist Pedzisai Ruhanya was even more scathing and dismissive.
“This is not the type of regime that will repeal oppressive laws with democratic legislation. Wait until you see the replacement to AIPPA and POSA. When will Zimbos learn not to trust this system; is 39 years of the same if not worse not enough; was there no LOMA before POSA, nxa”.
The gazetted Freedom of Information Bill has gone a long way in justifying the initial scepticism.
It’s a long way off from the initial Bill which civic society and media practitioners deliberated over in December 2018 adding recommendations and in line with the African Union’s Model Law on Access to Information.
The gazetted Bill is a sly wink at change whilst structurally it remains imbued with the same spirit of the former law.
Just like AIPPA, the Bill sets out a scope of limitations on the right to access information some of which is retrogressive and not in keeping with an open society.
This includes provisions limiting access to information on government borrowing which appears to be a reflex move to cushion itself from public scrutinisation at a time it’s suspected to have over $3 billion in secret debts.
Whilst the Freedom of Information Bill is aimed at effecting access to information as enshrined in Sections 61 and 62 of the Constitution, Section 3(a) of the Bill, just like AIPPA, fails to give effect to either the letter or spirit of the right to access information according to information experts.
As the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has pointed out previously, the Bill “puts in place voluntary mechanisms of disclosing data and information controlled by public institutions whilst private institutions have the discretion to voluntarily disclose any information within their control,” thus “the right to access information will apply differently to citizens and differently to non-residents and non-citizens,” it said.
The slyness of the previous AIPPA law is still present in the new Bill with awkward caveats to some requests for information.
According to the Bill, “requests for information may only be in writing, meaning oral requests for information are not valid.” This kind of condition is what a regime lacking integrity usually uses to stifle access to information as was also happening under AIPPA.
Just as with AIPPA, the new Bill is also the clandestine product of a government afraid of accountability. Media practitioners have complained that the gazetted Bill is vastly different from the one that initially came out for deliberations.
It’s a sign of how the government is continuing with the trend of weaponizing legislature.
As with most such PR-aligned tactics, the Bill does have minimal positive factors which improve upon AIPPA.
The hope is that the Bill will not be used to criminalize journalism as was constantly happening with AIPPA whilst the government may have a more open approach to disclosing publicly relevant information.
Meanwhile, the wait for laws that lay the mark for real reform and an open society continues as the new dispensation remains a floundering project.