29 August 2011

South Africa needs to simplify access to information request process

South Africa needs to follow recent international trends and simplify the process for requesting access to information in order to make the right to know more accessible to South Africans.

When the South African access to information law, the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) came into operation in 2001 it was internationally viewed as one of the most progressive laws of its kind. However, developments on the African continent and abroad over the last decade mean that South Africa is at risk of being left behind if it does not undertake a substantive review of PAIA.

Currently PAIA requires that people requesting access to information complete particular forms which are prescribed in regulations. The low levels of literacy in South Africa mean that many people have difficulty in completing the forms, resulting in a low level of capacity to engage with PAIA independently.

Many other countries have now introduced less formal procedures for requesting information. For example, legislation in India does not require requests to be submitted in any particular form. The request only needs to be submitted in writing and contain sufficient details to enable the person processing the request to identify the information.

The new Liberian legislation further progresses the adoption of informal request processes by permitting any person to make a request orally.

The right to request information orally is also contained in the current draft model law for African Union member states. The model law is being developed by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa. It is designed to provide a minimum set of standards for access to information for adoption by each African Union member state. Therefore, if the model law is adopted in its current form, South Africa will find itself failing to meet the minimum standards for a user-friendly request process.

Given that South Africa has 11 official languages and low levels of literacy, the effect that allowing oral requests for information would have on the utilisation of PAIA by ordinary members of society should not be underestimated.

Outside Africa, this month the United Kingdom Information Commissioner's Office determined that requests for information can be made via Twitter. Applicants for information in the UK can now tweet requests using the @ function, although for it to be a valid entry, they must include their real name or an identifiable pseudonym with contact details. It is a positive move, given the popularity of Twitter and it could prompt a rise in the number of requests for information in that country.

In South Africa there are many public authorities and political parties - the Presidency, Department of Home Affairs, African National Congress Youth League, Democratic Alliance, Johannesburg and Cape Town mayors - and many others, that use Twitter as a channel to communicate with their audience. It is time for such institutions to recognise that it is a two-way conversation and that the public should be able to obtain information through that same medium.

The right to information is a constitutional right afforded to all South Africans. Yet current processes mean that, in effect, the right is not able to be exercised by all South Africans. SAHA therefore urges the South African government to follow developing international best practice and simplify the process for obtaining information.