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Peter Kuthan / AZFA
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« on: October 19 2010 »

Windhoek+20: A Campaign for an African Platform on Access to Information – APAI

1.0. Introduction

The perception of knowledge and information as abstract concepts can no longer hold, because their power to make or destroy lives is immeasurable. The adage that “information is power” has never been more meaningful in an age where information is at the centre of political, social and economic life. Today more than any period in history, information rules; those who have information at their disposal have power, those who can control its flow have even more power.
The media, the rich and governments are perceived as powerful, because separately and collectively they control not only information, but how it flows, to whom and when. On the contrary those without information, otherwise known as the ignorant, are left to suffer. James Madison, one of America’s founding fathers, said it better; “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.”

Referred to as Access to Information, Freedom of Information, the Right to Know, and the Right to Information, all these phrases point to the importance of making available information held by public- and, in some cases, private- institutions, and ensuring that it is also accessible to citizens. The challenge is not merely a call for government records, but also a call for transparency and accountability in the governance process.

The underlying philosophy of the right of access to information is aptly captured in the Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2002, which states that: Public bodies hold information not for themselves, but as custodians of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information, subject only to clearly defined rules established by law.[1]”

Current advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) provide a further enabling environment that can potentially empower both state and citizenry to use ICTs in order to ensure that information is also accessible in actual practice – and that this information adds to communicative dialogue in the interests of development and democracy.

2.o. Why the focus?

2.1. Tool for fighting corruption

Apart from being a basic right, information and the right to its access have been proven to be central in the fight against corruption. The UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Union, all recognize access to information as an “important guard against abuses, mismanagement and corruption” (Banisar 2006)[2]. This view is backed by research demonstrating a direct link between the lack of information and corruption, because citizens cannot question what they don’t know. Transparency therefore is a key component of the access to information conception.

It is no coincidence that the ten richest and least corrupt countries have laws or practices guaranteeing access to information, while the ten poorest and highly corrupt countries have neither policies nor practices promoting access to information (TI 2005)

2.2. As a Socio-Economic Right

The enjoyment of other social and economic rights of health, education and employment inherently depend on the availability of information. Viewed as the cornerstone of all freedoms by the United Nations as far back as 1946, information is essential to enjoy or exercise the right to vote, or to a clean and healthy environment or make informed choices.

In South Africa in 2007, using the Promotion of Access to Information Act, a community sought to establish why despite a constitutional guarantee, they still had no access to clean water. The records released by their local government authority revealed that there were plans for delivery of the service and this then allowed the community to keep government accountable in the implementation of those plans and to demand dialogue with those in authority whenever there were deviations from those plans. It was a result of that demand of and access to information  that the responsible municipal government delivered water for the first time in the history of that community.

In Mexico, kidney patients received transplants, after filing information requests to find out from government why they where being left to die when the constitution guaranteed every Mexican the right to life.

In her speech to the Brookings institute in Washington, the founding member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Aruna Roy said: “Our slogan is ‘the right to know, the right to live’, because what does lack of information deny us? It denies us food. It denies us a minimum wage. It denies medicine in a hospital. It denies us a policeman not lodging a report against us, for us, with us, against somebody else in the police station. It involves very basic things. So for us the right to know is really the right to live.”

2.3 As a capacitating factor

An informed population can better its situation through converting information to applicable knowledge. In turn, that requires not just rights and practical access to information, but also information literacy skills. What is therefore important is that access to information includes developing citizen’s capacities to distinguish between information and disinformation, what is public and what is private, what is ethical and what is not. Further, there is the need for skilling the public to manage its information reception and consumption in a knowledgeable way – not least, by exploiting ICTs to the full. It is also widely recognized today that effective development and democracy require interactive communication and dialogue, in which quality information can serve as the currency of social creation and self-actualization.

full text: http://windhoekplus20.org/concept-note/

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