Access still denied

President Hage Geingob's push to have the bill tabled this year followed numerous hollow promises since 2016 by various government officials.

22 October 2019 | Government

Although all hands are on deck to put the final touches to the long-awaited Access to Information (ATI) Bill for tabling in parliament this year as pledged by President Hage Geingob in April, the bill is not likely to see the light of day until 2020.

During the 2019 State of Nation Address Geingob recognised the importance of access to information as a “critical component of the electorate's ability to hold elected leaders to account.”

He vowed that the anticipated ATI bill would be tabled in parliament this year still.

The promise of an ATI law has been proffered since 2016 by various high-ranking government officials, with no results.

While lawmakers and the information ministry have been pushing hard this year to ready the bill for tabling, it seems unlikely that would be possible before the National Assembly is dissolved for next month's elections.

“I don't think we'll see a bill tabled before the end of 2019, but probably early in January 2020,” ACTION Coalition Chairperson Frederico Links told Namibian Sun.

Links however added that indications are the bill could be tabled early next year, with a strong push from the information minister Stanley Simataa.

“During a meeting last month with the parliamentary standing committee on ICT, chaired by Maria Caley, with ACHPR commissioner Lawrence Mute in attendance, it was indicated to us that information minister Stanley Simataa had requested the Speaker to bring the National Assembly back early, in late January, in order to deal with the passing of the ATI bill and other outstanding bills before the swearing in of the new parliament in March 2020.”

He cautioned however that while it is understandable amidst election fever that delays are inevitable, “our concern is that the parliamentary processes will be rushed and that MPs will not be afforded time to properly interrogate the bill.”



Speed

The justice ministry confirmed last week the ATI bill was approved in August by the Cabinet Committee on Legislation (CCL).

The next step in the process is to submit the bill to the Directorate of Legislative Drafting, justice ministry spokesperson Master Penna confirmed.

He added that the directorate is responsible for completing the bill and then will need to obtain a letter of satisfaction from the information ministry.

Then, the bill will be submitted to the attorney-general's office for certification, after which it can be tabled.

It is uncertain whether the bill will be ready before the dissolution of parliament later this month, Penna said.

In theory, the bill needs to come to the drafters, and they have a maximum of six months to complete it to their standards, he explained. “It is likely not to be passed this year, considering the time left for parliament to close. But it is of very high importance, and there is the will to pass it,” Penna underlined.

He added that the next chance for tabling the bill would be in February 2020. Herman Kangootui, spokesperson at the information and communication technology ministry, last week said all hope is not yet lost.

He said the bill has to undergo two more processes, one with the legal drafters, and then certification, after which it will become a public document and tabled in parliament.

“We want to speed it up. The minister was very clear that he wants to table this bill as soon as possible,” Kangootui said. He added there “is still a chance to table it, and the minister is pushing for it to be tabled soon.”



Promises broken

The president's push to have the bill tabled this year followed numerous hollow promises since 2016 by various government officials that the ATI law would soon be in place.

In January this year, Frederico Links of the ACTION Coalition, which has for long campaigned for the law, highlighted that in early 2018, shortly after taking office, the new information minister Stanley Simataa had indicated to the coalition members that “finalising the ATI bill would be a priority for 2018. Unfortunately, nothing came of this in the end.”

This year, Namibia reclaimed the number-one spot in Africa on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index after sliding to second spot in 2018.

Yet, although the country regained its top position in Africa and now ranks 23rd out of 180 countries, four years ago it was ranked 17th in the world.

This decline was described as worrisome and many argue that an ATI law, or even just tabling the bill, could help strengthen the country's media freedom standing. It would also help citizens and the media to hold leaders accountable and demand improved transparency. A statement issued by the Editors' Forum of Namibia (EFN) earlier this year warned that without the ATI law in place, the “pluralistic media in this country cannot investigate and critically report on issues that are harming the well-being of our society”.

Jane Mungabwa of the Namibia Media Trust's (NMT) Free Expression Advocacy project said the lack of ATI legislation has helped create an imbalance between access to information and protection of information.

“There needs to be ATI legislation that clarifies what information needs to be protected under the banner of national security,” she said.

She said in her view, hopes have dwindled since 2016 of the bill being passed, and taking into account it is an election year, and parliament will be dissolved before the elections, the bill could again fail to pass. “But if it is enacted, that will be a national victory,” she stressed.



JANA-MARI SMITH

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