24 November 2012

Zambia: Access to Information Law to Enhance Accountability


WE welcome assurances given in Parliament yesterday by Information and Broadcasting Services Minister Kennedy Sakeni on Government's commitment to table the long-awaited Access to Information (ATI) Bill for enactment, as well as implementing the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act.

The ATI law is one piece of legislation that has been embraced by many democracies around the world because it helps to enhance the level of transparency and accountability in the management of national affairs.

It is common knowledge that the media plays a pivotal role as the public's watchdog by checking the excesses of established authority in any given environment, such as abuse of power and corruption.

Since democracy is premised on greater openness, transparency and accountability, the proposed legislation will give the media unfettered access to all the critical information about governance and all issues of national concern.

Once such information is brought into the public domain, the actions, omissions and commissions of all the key players, whether in Government or corporate entities, would be subjected to scrupulous scrutiny by the public.

The potential for abuse of power is greatly minimised when those wielding authority are under the constant glare of publicity, and they also know that whatever they do will be subjected to scrutiny by the public.

By contrast, secrecy fosters corruption and unwittingly encourages all sorts of impropriety because public officials seek comfort from the knowledge that their excesses will be concealed from public view through secrecy laws.

The quest for greater openness and transparency in emergent as well as older democracies is premised on fundamental principles on which democracy is anchored: The imperative need to curb abuse of power, ensure that public officials are held accountable, and enshrine the concept of transparency in the management of national affairs.

One prerequisite in the ongoing quest to enhance the level of transparency and accountability among public officials is the need to ensure that the media, both private and public, enjoys unfettered freedom to report freely, fairly and objectively about national affairs.

It is, therefore, significant to note that the public media is now more professional following the change of Government last year. Backbenchers yesterday paid glowing tribute to the public media for adopting a more professional outlook than before.

A professional media, insulated from political, economic and corporate control, offers the best guarantee to the survival of any democracy.

The MMD transformed the public media from public watchdogs into Government lapdogs, and the dire consequences of such myopic thinking are there for all to see: The MMD Government did not know the level of disaffection and discontent among the public and behaved more like the proverbial King who was stark naked, but no one in the crowd could muster enough courage to tell him that he was naked!

All governments, without excep tion, should recognise the fact that without a free media, unencumbered by all forms of controls associated with authoritarianism, they will not know how unpopular they are. That is what happened to the MMD.

Freedom of Information laws will foster a culture of openness and accountability among public officials.

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