Late last year, President Kikwete announced that his government will pass a Freedom of Information Act:
“We are now working on enacting a freedom of information law. We are working on that one, we think by April next year, we will send to parliament this bill, and have it enacted. It is giving the common Tanzanian citizen the right to have information from government.”
“We are talking of the people, the government becoming more open, people having greater access to information, and when they ask for this information, they should not be seen as venturing into territories that are not theirs. … If people want information on how medicines are distributed, if they want information about budgets for their primary
school, then they should have the right to know this.”
The timetable has slipped, but the proposed bill is prominent in the new action plan for the Open
Government Partnership. And according to the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Dr Asha-Rose Migiro, progress is being made on a draft law.
As so often, however, the devil is in the detail. Freedom of Information can be very powerful, but until we see what the new law looks like, it is impossible to know whether it will deliver on its potential, or will end up as a missed opportunity.
So, what does a good Freedom of Information law look like?
Fortunately, Tanzania can build on the experiences of others in preparing this bill. There are several very useful sources of advice to draw on. Most particularly, this includes an excellent chapter for the Open Government Guide produced by the US-based Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD). CLD has also produced useful tools and analysis. Article 19 has produced an great set of guiding principles, and the Open Society Justice Initiative runs an extensive website on the subject. Finally, there are also model laws, including one developed by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), and another by Article 19.
Drawing on these sources, I have pulled together the following ten suggestions for what I think would make Tanzania’s FOI law a good one:
Scope and exceptions
1. A presumption in favour of openness which applies to everyone and to all information, held by all public bodies.
2. Exceptions, for example to protect national security and personal privacy, should be limited and clearly defined. (The Tshwane Principles outline reasonable provisions to ensure that FOI legislation does not put national security at risk, as do model FOI laws.)
3. The principle that the freedom of information law prevails over other laws which place limits on the right, in case of conflict.
Procedures and sanctions
4. Making requests should be simple and free.
5. A clearly specified maximum response time. A 20-day limited is recommended.
6. A right of appeal for failures to implement the law, to an independent oversight body and the courts.
7. Clear sanctions for public officials who refuse to disclose information without reasonable cause.
8. An Information Officer to be nominated by each public authority, to receive and process requests for information.
9. A national level focal point, to provide guidance and to monitor implementation.
10. An independent oversight body, such as an information commission, with the power to review complaints relating to requests.
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Tanzania’s second phase Open Government Partnership Action Plan has now been posted online. I have updated the text above to reflect this.