African Commission Calls on State Parties to Establish and Mandate Effective Oversight Mechanisms for Access to Information Implementation

Hon. Ourveena Geereesha Topsy-Sonoo
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) has called on State Parties that have adopted national laws to ensure promotion and protection of the right to access information to establish and mandate effective oversight mechanisms, in addition to popularizing the laws to ensure awareness of the right of access to information saying these laws are only as good as the extent to which they are effectively utilized.

Commissioner Ourveena Geereesha Topsy-Sonoo, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa made the call in a statement issued on behalf of the African Commission on the occasion of the 2023 International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI).

Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo said the African Commission, recognizing the importance of this fundamental right, adopted the Resolution to Modify the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression to Include Access to Information and Request for a Commemorative Day on Freedom of Information during its 51st Ordinary Session in May 2012. This resolution, she said, emphasizes the significance of setting aside a day to commemorate access to information as a means to raise awareness, highlight the importance of this right, and promote the principles of good governance and accountability. She added that eventually, on October 15, 2019, the United Nations General Assembly designated September 28 as the official International Day for Universal Access to Information.

In her statement, Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo noted that “access to information is a fundamental right, which is closely related to freedom of expression. The right to access information is typically referenced as a key component of democracy, given that when people are able to access information about how their Government is performing, they can exercise their right to freedom of expression more meaningfully. Individuals need to have access to reliable sources in order to form an accurate opinion. Accordingly, the right to information is not only a human right, but also an indispensable tool which empowers citizens to demand accountability from Governments and participate in public life.”

According to her, “The role of media in informing the public is essential in this regard. It goes without saying that the right to access information is of crucial importance to the media. To do their job effectively, journalists need as much access to as much information as possible. This is in light of the fact that journalists collect, assess, verify and analyse information, which is then reported to the public. Accordingly, journalists flourish in circumstances where their right to access to information is ensured, promoted and protected.”

She cited Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) which obliges States Parties to “adopt legislative, or other measures to give effect to the rights, duties and freedoms enshrined therein.” Accordingly, governments are required to adopt laws which guarantee the right of every individual ‘to receive information’ as provided in Article 9(1) of the African Charter.

She recalled that despite efforts to ensure the right of access to information, laws facilitating this right initially struggled to gain ground in Africa due to the fact that a number of existing national legislations on the right to access information did not meet international standards, or were not properly implemented and publicized.

She pointed out that as a result of the need to provide guidance on the form and content of the legislation to be enacted to give effect to these obligations at the domestic level, the African Commission initiated the process of developing a model law on the right to access information, under the leadership of the special mechanism on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa.

The Special Rapporteur reminded that in 2013, the Commission had approved the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa. This law can be used as a guide by African countries to create or review their own access to information legislation and to ensure that these laws are effectively implemented. The year 2023 will mark the 10th anniversary of the adoption of this Model Law, which was a significant milestone in the progress of access to information in Africa.

Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo recalled that in adopting the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa, the African Commission provided detailed and practical content to the legislative obligations of States Parties to the African Charter with respect to the right of access to information, while leaving the specific form in which such laws will be adopted to individual States. She noted that since the publication of the first draft of the Model Law, the access to information landscape on the continent has improved significantly, notably with the increase in the number of African States adopting such laws. The most recent adoption was by the Namibian Parliament, which passed the Access to Information bill into law in 2022.

The Special Rapporteur reiterated that the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa was developed in response to the glaring need for the development of normative standards to guide States Parties in the development and adoption of access to information laws, in fulfillment of their obligations under the African Charter.

She emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to enhance the promotion and protection of the right to access information in Africa. She stated that the “Model Law on Access to Information for Africa” is a useful tool that can be used to ensure the promotion and protection of this fundamental right.