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Fundamental rights

Free access to information

Civil society plays an important role in the development of Zambia. To exercise its vital function, it needs partners who are good at keeping an eye on the executive branch of government: the media.

By Anthony Mulowa

Public opinion matters. But not always are politicians aware of what citizens really think, especially when people are poor and have little access to official channels of communication. Civil society organisations know the concerns of the people. But they need to get public opinion out to politicians – and it is the media who can do the job.

The media is one of several stakeholders with which civil society can work to mobilise public opinion. Governments can listen and act accordingly, bearing in mind the interests of the majority of citizens instead of elite minorities. By giving voice to public opinion – each in their particular way –, civil society, political parties and the media are the bedrock on which democracy rests. In this scenario, the media and civil society contribute to defining the development agenda on which governments should act, thus possibly forming public policy which is acceptable to all.

Unfortunately, things are difficult in Zambia. Though the media and civil society have an important role to play together, there has not been much co­operation between the two. Often enough, civil so­ciety – specifically at the local level – is sceptical of the media. Some civil society organisations worry that the media may harm them in their quest to report on difficult issues. So they prefer not to talk to the media, which in turn results in too little publicity about civil society’s activities.

Media-shy NGOs, however, are often run by greedy people who team up with cronies for personal benefits. Other local NGOs are more credible and actually do serve the purposes they declare.

In the history of Zambia, civil society has been influential in regime changes in 1991 and 2011. In 1991, civil society worked with the media in exposing the ills of the then ruling party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) which had ruled Zambia from the time of independence in 1964 to 1991. Under pressure from civil society, the media and other stakeholders then President Kenneth Kaunda had to re-introduce multi-party politics in Zambia, and this led to the birth of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD). In 1991, the MMD won the general elections.

A similar situation could be observed in 2011, when civil society and the media worked together, this time to question the 20-year-rule of the MMD. Some of the private-sector media put up a spirited fight to expose the wrongs the MMD had committed while governing Zambia. Thanks to the media’s cooperation with civil society organisations, voters were able to base their decisions on full information. Consequently, they ended the rule of the MMD.

Currently, press freedom is not guaranteed in the Zambian constitution, so media associations have been advocating this cause. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The new Patriotic Front (PF) government is working on a measure that would include press freedom in the republic’s constitution. The draft of the new constitution has been released for public comments and submissions. It includes articles to ensure the freedom of the press and access to information.

Draft article 38 on Freedom of the Media guarantees freedom and independence of electronic, print and other types of media. According to it, the state would not exercise control over, or interfere with, any person engaged in broadcasting, the production or circulation of any publication or the dissemination of information by any medium.

Empowering the people

Along the same lines, the government plans to release soon the Access to Information Bill for public scrutiny. When passed as law, it would greatly enhance transparency and accountability in the governance process, as any individual or organisation could invoke the provisions of this law to elicit information from public institutions. Zambian civil society organisations would be equipped with the tool needed to get information from public institutions without much hindrance. The media will also benefit from this reform as journalists will be able to get more information.

NGOs such as Transparency International Zambia (TIZ) are looking forward to the enactment of the Access to Information Bill into law. According to Goodwell Lungu, the TIZ executive director, this law is important for citizens’ empowerment. By exercising this right, citizens will be able to keep their government and public bodies accountable, thereby effectively hindering corruption.

People entrust their governments with power and resources through elections, and those who are entrusted with this power bear a responsibility not only to serve, but also to inform citizens and encourage the public to participate in their decisions and actions. Once the media reforms are completed in Zambia, NGOs such as TIZ will partner with the media to expose any alleged mismanagement of the country’s resources. Civil society will become able to carry out investigations. Their findings can only get to the public through the media – a perfect cooperation, highly necessary in a functioning democratic society.

In absence of a freedom of information law, Zambian civil society organisations and the media so far have not been able to freely conduct their work. They are impeded by the so-called State Security Act, which protects classified information. In the past, the government abused this Act as a way to refuse releasing information which the media or civil society requested.

For example, people currently have no direct access to the documents that relate to government procurement and contracting. Therefore, papers can only report about such issues of public interest when relevant information is leaked to them. But with the Access to Information law, such problems should not arise any more – the media would be allowed to follow the entire process and be able to see how a certain bidder was picked. Such transparency should drastically reduce corruption in public offices. Currently, corruption is rampant. It is considered common practice that, for every contract given, a certain percentage goes to the officials endorsing the deal.

Defence Minister Geoffrey Mwamba recently said that corruption is deeply rooted in Zambian civil service – to an extent where it has become the rule and not an exception. “I am ashamed to admit that our civil service is so corrupt right now. They basically won’t move a pen or paper unless whatever is happening has a direct benefit to them, which makes government work suffer,” Mr Mwamba said.

The media and civil society face many challenges in Zambia when conducting their work; hence press freedom is a key factor in trying to crack the rampant corruption. Press freedom is a matter of public interest. Action can only be taken if acts of corruption are reported.