Following concerted lobbying by a coalition of media and civil society organisations, (including my employers, Twaweza), the government has dropped plans to fast-track the Access to Information and Media Services Bills. The bills may yet be presented to parliament in the current session for first reading, but the Attorney General, George Masaju, has promised that stakeholders will be given time to read and comment on the bill.
Tanzania’s long-awaited Access to Information bill – promised by President Kikwete 18 months ago and included the current Open Government action plan – may be about to become a reality, though in far from ideal circumstances.
The Tanzanian government announced late last week that six bills*, including the Access to Information Bill, will be rushed through parliament over the next two weeks, under a “certificate of urgency” (hati ya dharura). This allows all three stages of the bill to be conducted in a single session: introducing the bill to the house (first reading), debate (second reading) and a vote (third reading).
It is good news that the long-awaited bill will finally be presented to parliament. And in a year that includes a constitutional referendum and a general election, there is much less parliamentary time available than usual.
However, fast-tracking the bill dramatically reduces opportunities for scrutiny by MPs and for public consultations . Depending on the exact timetable, there may be no opportunity at all for meaningful analysis and public debate. This means there is a high risk that a sub-standard access to information bill will be passed into law . The devil is in the detail.
I am told that the bill exists, and has been presented to the house business committee together with the certificate of urgency, and that the committee has agreed for the bill to be presented in this way. It should become available to MPs and others some time today (Tuesday).
Nevertheless, it is ironic that the public will have no time to comment on a bill to make government more open . It is also worrying. Process matters, and a process that limits room for public participation and debate on a bill that is supposed to encourage such things, is not a good sign.
The other bills that the government hopes will get a certificate of urgency are the Media Services Bill, Fair Competition (Amendment) Bill, Computer and Cyber-Crimes Bill, Electronic Transaction Bill, and the Natural Gas Bill.
The Media Services and Natural Gas bills in particular are likely to be highly controversial, and there must be considerable doubt as to whether they can be fast-tracked and passed in this way.
Several other bills (including the Statistics Bill, which was previously withdrawn following criticism) are also listed for their second readings.