The importance of access to information for a democratic society and the challenges associated with the implementation of the right of access were key topics discussed at the annual PAIA National Information Officers' Forum.
The event was held on Right to Know Day, 28 September, and was hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).
The forum included a series of notable speakers and a presentation of the findings of the SAHRC in respect of the implementation of the right to information in South Africa over the preceding 12 month period.
Emphasising the importance of access to information in democratic governance, SAHRC Commissioner Janet Love, speaking at the event, indicated that effective governance requires an informed populace, which can only be achieved when information flows freely and is not unreasonably withheld by information holders. Justice Jody Kollapen also recognised the importance of access to information to meaningful participation in public life and decision making, referring to the notion of ‘government by discussion'.
While recognising the importance of access to information, speakers did not shy away from discussing the problems with the implementation of the right in South Africa and the region.
Commissioner Love cited evidence of information that public bodies were unwilling to share, despite its importance to the realisation of human rights and the right to that information enshrined in the Constitution and PAIA. Specifically, Commissioner Love referred to the elusive nature of public housing lists and the unwillingness of school districts to share information about the prevalence of teenage pregnancy.
Advocate Pansy Tlakula, African Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, discussed the impact that the lack of resources allocated to record keeping and knowledge management has on the realisation of the right to information. Advocate Tlakula argued that a greater allocation of resources to these areas would allow a paradigm shift away from secrecy toward openness.
Deputy CEO of the SAHRC, Naledzani Mukwevho, also highlighted the need for greater resources to be attributed to access to information in order for effective implementation. In demonstrating the current problems with compliance Mukwevho reported that this year only 262 of 282 municipal bodies complied with their obligation to report to the SAHRC in respect of PAIA implementation.
The impact that the Protection of State Information Bill (or Secrecy Bill) will have on the right to information, if it were to become law, was also addressed. Advocate Tlakula indicated her belief that the Bill too readily places concern for national security over the benefits associated with increased access to information, a trend she considers has been imported from the western world.
The comments by the speakers are consistent with the findings of the PAIA Civil Society Network in its shadow report on the implementation of PAIA, which was released on Right to Know Day and made available at the forum. More information about the report is available here.
In view of the importance of the right to information to the effective operation of a democratic society and the realisation of other socio economic rights, it is essential that the government address the current implementation issues associated with PAIA in order to achieve the full realisation of the right in South Africa.