ON Friday next week, the world will be celebrating the International Right to Know Day, which is normally observed on September 28 every year.
This day was established by access to information advocates from around the globe. It was first celebrated on 28 September 2003. The day dates back on September 28, 2002, when freedom of information organizations from around the world met in Sofia, Bulgaria, and created a network of Freedom of Information Advocates (FOIA Network).
They agreed to collaborate in promoting the individual right of access to information and open, transparent governance, and September 28 was designated as International Right to Know Day. The day symbolizes the global movement for promotion of the right to information.
In order to celebrate this day and to create public awareness related to Tanzania's Information bill which stakeholders have been saying that it is in 'final stage'. Journalists in Tanzania remember three years ago, when the then Deputy Minister for Information, Culture and Sports Mr Joel Bendera told a joint consultative meeting of media stakeholders and members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Community Development that the bill was almost ready and was just awaiting the blessing of the cabinet.
The minister revealed a lot of proposals forwarded to the ministry by media stakeholders two years earlier had been incorporated into the new bill. Three years have elapsed without any success to this bill. Once the cabinet's endorsement was through, he said, the bill would then be sent to relevant bodies for final touches before the same is submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Community Development for deliberations prior to presentation to Parliament.
Bendera said it was the government's intention to have the bill presented to Parliament 'very soon'. It is sad to say that nothing substantial has happened to this bill since then. Jenista Mhagama who was chairing the consultative meeting in her capacity as Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Community Development underscored the importance of having new information legislation working.
She apparently supported media stakeholders' reservations as to why it was taking too long for the government enact new, right to information law, in line with international standards. The stakeholders in their Coalition for Right to Information had submitted proposals for two legislations - the Media Services Bill and Right to Information in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
Despite the deputy minister's disclosure on the bill, Ms Mhagama, asked the Ministry of Information to fully inform the committee on the process and progress of the information bill by the first week of the coming Parliament session which began three years ago. Ms Mhagama directed the ministry to report to her committee why it was now formulating a new media policy while a new media bill is awaiting cabinet's endorsement.
She emphasized that the Parliamentary Committee was determined to see that proposed media bills become law before the current parliament ends. Parliament would be dissolved before general elections are held later this year. The concerns of the coalition for right to information on the delay on presentation of the information bills were eloquently presented at the consultative meeting by a private advocate and media stakeholder, Mohammed Tibanyendera.
Tibanyendera in his presentation which set the tone for discussions and deliberations at the consultative meeting, questioned the government's silence and delay in finalizing the information legislations. The Coalition for Right to Information is led by the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) is made up of 11 civil organisations.
Other members of the Coalition are Tanzania Legal Education Trust (TANLET) Media Owners Association of Tanzania(MOAT) Media Institute of Southern Africa- Tanzania (MISA-Tan) Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA), National Organisation for Legal Assistance (nola), Legal and Human Rights Centre(LHRC) and the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP).
Journalists in Tanzania could celebrate this day, looking at the following areas. They could insist that the aim of Right to Know Day is to raise awareness of every individual's right of access to government-held information, the right to know how elected officials are exercising power, and how the tax-payers' money is being spent.
Media practitioners and stakeholders in Tanzania could deliberate and press for easy access to information from government and public institutions. Last year, retired high court judge, Justice Thomas Mihayo set the tone of the symposium coordinated jointly by the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT) and HakiElimu with a remark that right to access true and genuine information was one of the main pillars of good governance.
Justice Mihayo who is also the Chairperson of the MCT's Ethics Committee said though information was an integral part of democracy and good governance, the government should not block or limit access to crucial information which it does not want the public to know.
He said there are a number of reasons for the government to limit the access of information, and one of them was limiting the public from knowing their rights, so that they would not demand them and the authorities desire to sustain bureaucracy which is a hindrance to good governance.
Another one is to give positive impression of the government and its organs to hoodwink the public on the actual conditions obtained in the country.Faulting the projection of false impression by the authorities, Justice Mihayo said the best way for any government to be close to the public is transparency.
On the media he said, there are also a number of problems on how they operate and inform the public. Apart from some owners influencing editorial content and interfering in day to day operations, there are some media practitioners who censor themselves and thus withholding crucial information, he said.
Another problem is the influence of business and political interests, which he said deny the public crucial information and sometimes feed them with fabricated and cooked reports. It was generally agreed in the deliberations that it was imperative that the government to facilitate for easy access to information.
Other speakers last year extended the appeal for access to information to big business, appealing to them not to use advertisement as carrot and stick - to reward publications that toe their lines and deny those which expose vices.