Access to Information Bill: is this the start of New Dawn summersaults?
By Nicholas Bwalya
It is 20 years since proponents of the Access to Information (ATI) Bill begun their advocacy to have this important law enacted. Governments have come and gone, MMD and PF regimes all leaving the Bill to gather dust on the shelves of the Ministry of Information.
The PF government was even more daring than the MMD because in its manifesto of 2011 to 2016, the party pledged to enact the Bill into law. But as they say the rest is history.
In a country that is among the top of the Corruption Perception Index, enacting the Access to Information law is a great stride towards fighting corruption and promoting transparency in governance. Availing information to the public not only promotes transparency but also enables leaders to be held accountable to the citizens. On the other hand, hiding information to the public creates mistrusts and can stifle people’s participation in governance and hinder them from making informed decisions.
During the run up to elections, the then opposition UPND campaigned on the premises of enhancing media freedoms and on page 39 of their 2021-2026 the party commits to ”enacting a consultatively established Freedom of Information Act, which will play an essential role in keeping government transparent and accountable and to expose any government misconduct and waste.”
Against this background, Information and Media Permanent Secretary Kennedy Kalunga recently announced that government was to take the ATI Bill to all the 10 provinces of the country in order to widen stakeholder consultation. The PS said following the recent consultation meeting with the media and other stakeholders on the Bill in Lusaka, some stakeholders have proposed to the Ministry that more stakeholders need to be consulted on the Bill across the country, which proposal the Ministry has fully embraced.
This statement from the Ministry appears very innocuous but going by similar pronouncements from previous governments, there is clearly an element of buying time in enacting this Bill. Previous governments made similar statements and the country has not enacted this Bill because of such delays. What should be of more concern to advocates of the ATI Bill is that the Ministry clearly failed to put a time frame in which these countrywide consultations will be conducted. This is saddening.
There are many questions that the new stance by the ministry has raised because the ATI has been on the books of this institution for two decades now and consultations after consultation have been held with various stakeholders. Going by this new suggestion from the Ministry, one would ask, does the ministry have resources to effectively carry out these consultations? Without a good resource envelop, we might end up with a stalled process on account of lack of funds and then we are back to another long wait.
There is therefore need for the ministry to come up with a defined roadmap with clear milestones on how it will handle the ATI Bill process before this process reverts to the usual summersaults it has been subjected to. Access to information law is not just for the media but every Zambian who is interested in accountability of the government and all leaders at various levels. It won’t be in the interest of the nation to see the Bill being further put to more flip flops by the New Dawn government. The Author is a Journalist and Development Communication Specialist
Media academician Sam Phiri has been tracking this procrastination in successive government delaying to actualise a sought after media friendly environment.
This is a 19-year-old delayed ATI train, yet to reach its destination: “ATI Law in Zambia – Lest We Forget… JANUARY 2003 – Vice President Enoch Kavindele, = Government needs sufficient research and thereafter the ATI bill would be brought back to parliament
FEBRUARY 2005 – Information Minister Mutale Nalumango = ATI law should not be rushed although there had been no shift in the government’s principles of transparency, accountability and good governance
JANUARY 2006 – Vice-President Lupando Mwape, = ATI law could breed chaos because excess freedom is dangerous, but the bill would be reintroduced into parliament after taking into account certain concerns
FEBRUARY 2006 – Information Minister Vernon Mwaanga = Government was consulting locally and internationally and has no immediate intention of tabling the bill before parliament. This is partially because the ATI law would be difficult to implement and cope with.
MAY 2006 – Deputy Information Minister Benny Tetemashimba, = bill will be tabled in 2007 after exhaustive consultations with all stakeholders
JUNE 2006 – Information Minister Vernon Mwaanga= Government still consulting.
JANUARY 2008 – President Mwanawasa, = Govt will present bill before end of the year (2008).
JANUARY 2009 – President Rupiah Banda= Consultations on the ATI bill have reached an advanced stage.
AUGUST 2010 – Information Minister Lt. Gen. Ronnie Shikapwasha = Zambia is not ready for the ATI law. There is need for more consultations
OCTOBER 2011 – Vice President Guy Scott, later Acting President, = Government is keen to table the bill to parliament within 90 days but feared that it would be blocked by the opposition parties
DECEMBER 2011 – Information and tourism Minister Given Lubinda, = there is need for putting logistics in place to make sure that before the bill is enacted, all important issues are considered
FEBRUARY 2012 – Information and labour Minister Fackson Shamenda, = the planned law is not for the government but for practitioners, but government wants to listen more … exhaust consultations so that the bill could be close to perfection before presenting it to parliament
JUNE 2012 – Information Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga= A task force on the ATI law has completed its work on the draft bill. The bill would be ‘launched in a few days’ time for public scrutiny and input before submission to cabinet and parliament’
JULY 2013 – Information Minister Kennedy Sakeni, = the ATI draft bill will be forwarded to a parliamentary subcommittee on information and broadcasting before being considered by the cabinet and then submitted to parliament. However, before that, the government has to ensure that the bill has all the required ingredients before tabling it in parliament
DECEMBER 2013 – Information Minister Sakeni, – ATI Bill will be presented to Parliament within the first quarter of the coming year, 2014
FEBRUARY 2015 – Information Minister Chishimba Kambwili, = ATI bill will be tabled in parliament before end of sitting which ends on March 2015
MARCH 2015 – Information Minister Chishimba Kambwili, = ATI bill was sent to Attorney General’s Office for clearance pending presentation to Parliament.
Wednesday 3rd May 2017-Justice Minister Given Lubinda attributes Government procrastination on the Access To Information (ATI) bill to a backlog of legislative work required to operarationalize the January 2015 Amended Republican Constitution.
March 2022 – Information and Media Permanent Secretary Kennedy Kalulnga tells a PANOS Executive Director Vusumuzi Sifile and Teldah Mawarire of Inter News Network Zambia that government will take ATI document to all the 116 districts in 10 provinces as a means of wider consultations.
The above dazzlingly samples swings in Government positions on the ATI law over the past 19 years with the latest being the UPND leadership.