The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (the Special Rapporteur), on behalf of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), joins the international community in commemorating the International Day for Universal Access to Information, celebrated globally on 28 September. Joining others calling for a day commemorating this important right, the African Commission adopted its Resolution to Modify the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression to Include Access to Information and Request for a Commemorative Day on Freedom of Information, during the 51st Ordinary Session in May 2012, which underscored “the importance of setting aside a day to commemorate access to information as a way to raise awareness and emphasize the importance of this right, and promote the ideals of good governance and accountability.” Eventually, the date was so designated by the 74th UN General Assembly on 15 October 2019.
Access to information is a fundamental right, which is closely related freedom of expression. The right to access information is typically referenced as a key component of democracy, given that when people are able to access information about how their Government is performing, they can exercise their right to freedom of expression more meaningfully. Individuals need to have access to reliable sources in order to form an accurate opinion. Accordingly, the right to information is not only a human right, but also an indispensable tool which empowers citizens to demand accountability from Governments and participate in public life.
The role of media informing the public is essential in this regard. It goes without saying that the right to access information is of crucial importance to the media. To do their job effectively, journalists need as much access to as much information as possible. This is in light of the fact that journalists collect, assess, verify and analyse information, which is then reported to the public. Accordingly, journalists flourish in circumstances where their right to access to information is ensured, promoted and protected.
Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) obliges States Parties to “adopt legislative, or other measures to give effect to the rights, duties and freedoms enshrined therein.” Accordingly, Governments are required to adopt laws which guarantee the right of every individual ‘to receive information’ as provided in Article 9(1) of the African Charter.
However, despite efforts to ensure the right to access to information, laws facilitating this right initially struggled to gain ground in Africa. Furthermore, a number of existing national legislations on the right to access information did not meet international standards, or were not properly implemented and publicized. Accordingly, in view of the need to provide guidance on the form and content of the legislation to be enacted to give effect to these obligations at the domestic level, the African Commission initiated the process of developing a model law on the right to access information, under the leadership of the special mechanism on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa.
Subsequently, in 2013 the Commission adopted the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa which provides a template to African States in the formulation, adoption, or alternatively review, of access to information legislation and to ensure effective implementation of the laws. 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Model Law, a landmark event in the access to information trajectory on the African continent.
In adopting the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa, the African Commission provided detailed and practical content to the legislative obligations of States Parties to the African Charter with respect to the right of access to information, while leaving the specific form in which such laws will be adopted to individual States. Since the publication of the first draft of the Model Law, the access to information landscape on the continent has improved significantly, notably with the increase in the number of African States adopting such laws. The most recent adoption was by the Namibian Parliament, which passed the Access to Information bill into law in 2022.[ https://neweralive.na/posts/opinion-are-we-ready-to-implement-access-to… ]
The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, on behalf of the African Commission, takes this opportunity to commend the States Parties which have adopted national laws to ensure promotion and protection of the right to access information. Furthermore, in light of the fact that these laws are only as good as the extent to which they are effectively utilized, States Parties are encouraged to establish and mandate effective oversight mechanisms, in addition to popularizing the laws to ensure awareness of the right of access to information.
The Model Law on Access to Information for Africa was developed in response to the glaring need for the development of normative standards to guide States Parties in the development and adoption of access to information laws, in fulfillment of their obligations under the African Charter. Today, as we commemorate the International Day for Universal Access to Information, let us commit to working collaboratively towards securing greater prospects for promoting and protecting the right of access to information in Africa. The Model Law on Access to Information for Africa is one of the tools which can be utilized to ensure promotion and protection of the fundamental right of access to information.
Banjul, 28 September 2023