Analysis: EMELDA MUSONDA
THAT Cabinet has approved the long and eagerly awaited Access to Information (ATI) Bill is not only welcome and progressive but a clear demonstration of political will towards the promotion of media freedom and democracy.
Though the wait has been long, the approval of the bill at cabinet level is a step in the right direction and ignites hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Before the Patriotic Front (PF) came into power in 2011, one of its campaign messages was that it would deliver the Freedom of Information Bill, now known as the Access to Information Bill.
All these years, debate has been ongoing with various stakeholders calling on Government to expedite the process.
Government, on the other hand, kept on assuring the nation that it would take the bill to Parliament, but this never happened for one reason or the other.
For instance, Mr Given Lubinda, who was the first Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services under the PF regime, assured the nation that Government was committed to not only enacting a Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill but also to implementing it as promised.
Mr Lubinda’s successors Kennedy Sakeni, Chishimba Kambwili and Mulenga Kampamba also made the same assurances during their tenures at the ministry.
Given that for the past seven years Government has only been giving assurances, it is most likely, and understandably so, that some stakeholders mistook that for lack of political will and resistance to enact the bill.
It is, however, elating that Government has finally exonerated itself by approving the long-awaited bill.
Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services and Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya, who disclosed the development on Monday, said the bill is aimed at promoting proactive and organised dissemination of information to the public.
As rightly noted by Ms Siliya, the ATI is an important piece of legislation in a democracy like ours.
The piece of legislation is key to promoting media freedom, which is the cornerstone of every democracy as it enables citizens to enjoy their rights to freedom of expression and access to information. These two rights help citizens to seek the truth and make informed decisions.
Needless to say, access to information is imperative in citizens’ ability to engage in quality and meaningful discourse on public affairs.
For instance, for one to hold a valuable opinion, they need sufficient access to quality information.
The bill, when enacted, is expected to make information in the custody of public officers accessible to citizens.
While there has been a misconception that Access to Information Bill is only useful to the media, the truth is that every Zambian citizen stands to benefit from the law.
With the ATI in place, citizens will not need to depend on rumour-mongers because they will have the right to access first-hand information. The ATI, therefore, has potential to counter fake news and speculations by making the truth easily accessible.
Access to information is also important in the fight against corruption as it enhances transparency and accountability.
The ATI will also strengthen the investigative role of journalism as journalists will have the legal backing to demand and comb through necessary documents in their pursuit for news.
Following the approval of the ATI, Government has said it will make the document public next week after making minor adjustments.
All stakeholders, including citizens, should ensure that they thoroughly go through the document when it is made public to familiarise themselves with the contents and where necessary propose amendments.
Like in a relay race, the executive has fulfilled its obligation and has passed on the baton to Parliament – the legislative arm of Government – to also do its part.
The eyes of all Zambians and media in particular are now focused on Parliament awaiting its verdict.
It is expected that parliamentarians, both from the ruling and opposition parties, understand better the importance of this piece of legislature.
On ATI, we expect the august House to speak with one voice.
The Members of Parliament have this opportunity to emulate the Executive and make a landmark impact on Zambia’s democracy by enacting the long-awaited ATI.
Members of the opposition should not fall into the trap of not wanting to support the law given that it will be accredited to the fulfilment of the PF promises.
We expect them to look at the bigger picture of how important this law is to the country’s democracy.
To all parliamentarians, the ball is now in your court and the nation is watching.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorials editor.
Analysis: EMELDA MUSONDA