By Sij Ncube
HARARE, September 28, 2015 – Zimbabwe on Monday joined the world in commemorating the Right To Know Day but media and human rights organisations say President Robert Mugabe’s administration should fulfil its constitutional and regional obligations to accentuate the enjoyment of citizens’ right to access to information.
The demands for the right to know or openness from Mugabe’s administration comes as concerned citizens continue seeking answers on the whereabouts of disappeared activists, such as Itai Dzamara, and Patrick Nabanyana.
In the run-up to the 2008 general elections several MDC-T youth activists were abducted from their beds by suspected state security agents and later found murdered, among them Tonderai Ndira, deaths Mugabe’s critics say need explaining.
Be that as it may, the Bill of Rights, Chapter 4, Section 62 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe makes it clear that citizens have the right to access information held by the state, in so far as the information is required for the exercise or protection of a right.
But despite the statute, Mugabe’s administration continues to be very secretive even on mundane issues such as who borrowed what from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
Celebrated human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa is battling to get information via the Zimbabwe Media Commission regarding details of the beneficiaries of farming inputs under Mugabe’s controversial land reforms using Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).
In the case of Dzamara, who disappeared about seven months ago after allegedly being abducted by suspected state law enforcement agents at the high-density suburb of Glen View in the capital, nothing tangible has come out the state investigation despite the High Court tasking the state to find Dzamara.
Lack of progress in the Dzamara case has given credence to assertions by Mugabe’s critics that he was made to disappear because of his perceived anti-Mugabe peaceful demonstrations in central Harare, which were slowly but surely attracting local and international scrutiny.
Laws such as the Official Secrets Act, AIPPA, Interception of Communications Act and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) have wide restrictions that could be used to conceal information in violation of the Right to Know.
Media Consultant and former journalist, Rashweat Mukundu, says Zimbabweans have access to information through social media and the existing mainstream media to some extent but this is not guaranteed by the state in its actions and attitudes.
“The government is still operating with a twenty century mentality in the 21st century hence the lack of access to government information,” said Mukundu.
According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe, the Right to Know Day is set aside to raise awareness on the right to access information held by government and other entities to foster transparent and accountable governance.
In that regard, Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution demands for the enactment of a new democratic information law to replace the existing AIPPA.
This is further buttressed by the government’s very-own-sanctioned Information and Media Panel of Inquiry’s 2014 report which recommends that:
“AIPPA should be repealed and replaced with a law that specifically provides for access to information with ample provisions for protecting this right …”
The IMPI report notes that enjoyment of the right to information is limited in Zimbabwe due to among other factors, uncooperative officials in public institutions, restrictive procedures under AIPPA, limited reach of the national broadcaster and unaffordable prices of newspapers.
“MISA-Zimbabwe is therefore greatly concerned with the deafening silence pertaining to progress in implementing the envisaged media, access to information, freedom of expression policy and legislative reforms.
“Fundamentally, the Constitution emphasises that all public institutions must be governed by principles which include timely provision of accurate information to the public. This has not been the case because of the cumbersome processes pertaining to accessing information under AIPPA,” said MISA-Zimbabwe in a statement Monday.
It urged the government to put in place effective policies and legal measures underpinned by requisite complaints and enforcement mechanisms to enable citizens to access information to foster public accountability, socio-economic development and growth, adding that also key to this is the long overdue licensing of community radios, speedy completion of the digitisation process and establishment of well-resourced multi-technology information centres throughout the country.
There are concerns the recently licenced “independent” radio stations mimic the state broadcaster as its owners are linked to Mugabe and Zanu PF.
For instance Zi-FM is owned by Zanu PF legislator for Nyanga South, who doubles up as the minister of Information and Communication Technology, Supa Mandiwanzira while Star FM is owned by Zimbabwe Newspaper Limited, which is owned and controlled by Mugabe’s office.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) chipped in, saying the right to know is central to human rights promotion and called upon the government to exercise transparency, accountability and openness, where information to do with human rights and its operations is concerned.
“The Rights to Know means that citizens are entitled to access government information, which often has a bearing on their civil, political, cultural and socioeconomic rights. A culture of secrecy, impunity, unaccountability and lack of transparency is perpetuated through the violation of the Right to Know,” read part of its statement.
“Secrecy is the fertile ground for the violation of citizens’ fundamental human rights through concealment of acts of commission, or omission by the government, or its agencies.”
In particular, ZimRights said, the government has instituted commissions to investigate past human rights abuses, especially in times of political conflicts, but reports of such commissions have never been made public.
Critics point out that citizens are still waiting for the report of the commission set up by Mugabe to probe political disturbances in the two provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands in the early 1980s.
“The concealment has been in spite of the fact that the information may have been relevant to the protection and restoration of citizens’ human dignity. The Right to Know has usually been ignored under the pretexts of protection of national interest and security,” said ZimRights.
“The Right to Know is central to the realisation of other human rights because it is only in a transparent and open society that justice, democracy, and good governance can be upheld. It is in this light that ZimRights calls upon the government to end the trends of secrecy, where the human rights of citizens have been violated, where government operations are concerned, and generally uphold the freedom of information.
“The failure to have disclosure, where human rights violations are concerned means that it is difficult to have closure, healing, reconciliation, and prevent recurrence.”
Under international agreements, the Right to Know is recognised in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights