We recently attended the Highway Africa conference, running concurrently to the Pan African Conference on Access to Information. From the UNESCO Communication and Information newsletter:
Around 220 delegates from diverse sectors gathered together in Cape Town, South Africa, from 17 to 19 September 2011 in a meeting that gave way to the signature of the African Platform on Access to Information. The Pan African Conference on Access to Information (PACAI) was convened by the Windhoek + 20 Working Group, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration. UNESCO supported the event together with other key partners, which included the African Union Commission, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
A number of important developments towards enhanced access to information have taken place in Africa in the past few years. Ten African countries now have access to information laws, as the international expert Toby Mendel explained during the event. There are also relevant on-going initiatives at the regional level, such as the Model Law for African Union Members on Access to Information, which is being developed by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples´ Rights. In the context of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), work is also underway towards the adoption of a binding Supplementary Act for a Uniform Legal Framework for Freedom of Expression and Right to Information. Moreover, many African countries are now part of multi-stakeholder efforts like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the International Aid Transparency Initiative and the Open Government Partnership. In sum, a momentum in the direction of transparency is taking place on the African continent.
Delegates to the Pan African Conference on Access to Information reflected on the advances in press freedom, freedom of expression and access to information that have taken place in Africa since the Windhoek Declaration was agreed upon on 3 May 1991. However, such recognition by PACAI participants was accompanied by their emphasis on the still substantial obstacles that need to be overcome if access to information is to be fully guaranteed.
Most African countries lack access to information legislation, and its implementation, where it does exist, has faced critical difficulties. On the supply side, important challenges have to do with the need to set up proper procedures ensuring timely access to information, effective enforcement mechanisms and adequate record management practices. Insufficient human and financial capacities within public bodies, accompanied by a culture of secrecy, were also identified as key problems.
Viewed from the demand side, the majority of Africans fundamentally lack awareness about their right to know and about how to actually exercise it. The complex issue of exceptions to information disclosure (based, for example, on national security, personal safety or privacy considerations, among other things) was also discussed at length during the Conference. Other important topics addressed included ICT and public domain information, the role of journalists, the promotion of media and information literacy, and the link between access to information and gender equality. Also during the Conference, the African Union Commission launched the Pan-African Media Network.
PACAI took place simultaneously with a number of other events, such as the 2011 edition of Highway Africa and a series of UNESCO sponsored workshops. During the joint closing session of all the gatherings held under the umbrella denomination “Africa Media Summit”, the African Platform on Access to Information was adopted. Recalling the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, highlighted that, once again, from the African region emerges a new Declaration “that is setting a series of principles that should be followed not only by all nations that are members of the African Union, but by all nations of the world”.