Why freedom of information vital in enhancing social accountability

BY NURU NGAILO

this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Other schools of thoughts say that Citizen participation in holding government to account breaks with the superficiality of much of “civic participation” discourse and practice. It is one thing to take into account the opinions of the poor or the citizenry in general when planning public policy. It is quite another to allow the people to watch and evaluate the actions of government as they unfold.

The latter is far more effective in stimulating good government and much more empowering for the citizens who participate.

Social accountability also easily supports the legal defense of human rights. Once citizens are
mobilised in supervising the government it is a small step for them to start demanding and
designing new laws as well as using the existing laws to back up their claims against the state.

There is great potential for setting up positive feed-back loops between social accountability and
the law. In addition, rights, in particular the basic civil freedoms and rule of law, are a precondition
for effective social accountability initiatives.

In Tanzania Social Accountability is essential because it promotes the protection of human rights. The focal point underlying the social accountability principle is that, all human beings are equal and have equal rights to claim their resources in order to meet their basic human needs and to exercise their human rights and capabilities. The citizens, who are mainly the largest tax payers, cannot enjoy these rights until the state provides a suitable environment for them to do so.

The Tanzanian state is supposed to make sure that all of its citizens are educated no matter whether they are rich or poor. It is the responsibility of the government to construct good schools with all the required essential teaching facilities; employ qualified teachers and administrators to manage those schools. By doing so, it will be providing a suitable environment for citizens to exercise or enjoy their right to education.

The rights to information are provided in international instruments such as conventions and treaties such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), International Covenant for Social Economic and Cultural Rights (ICSECR) which are domesticated and ratified by different nations including Tanzania in their laws hence they become binding and enforceable in the courts of law.

Speaking on the right to social accountability asserts, Head of programme with the Public Social Accountability Monitor (PSAM), Gertrude Mugizi said “Every state is obliged to justify and explain its public resource management (PRM) decisions and actions. It should do this in its core PRM documentation as a matter of course and take timely corrective action where weaknesses in the process are identified.”

She further noted that all citizens have the right to demand these justifications and explanations from the state when it fails to provide them adequately and corrective action where required.

(PSAM) explains that the right to social accountability can be used as a powerful tool to build citizen trust in their government based on its principles which insists a culture of demanding duty bearers to explain and justify decisions and actions of their performance towards realising human needs and capabilities.

Freedom of information is an important tool…enables citizens to have access to public information both at the central and local level and to keep track on governance issues and participate in public issues like the budget process, this will promote accountability in the sense that public officials will be cautious because citizens are tracking their activities.

At the village level citizens should participate in decisions made during the village meetings and should be given all the required information prior, as provided in the Local Authority Financial Memorandum of 1997. The law requires councils in the country within six months of the receipt of the report of the Auditor General to publish at their offices’ notice boards and in a newspaper, the audited balance sheet, income and expenditure, and any signed audit report on the accounts.

Tanzania can borrow a leaf from countries like India, which in 2005 enacted a powerful right to Information Law. It was recorded that soon after the law was passed there were over two million information requests from the citizens addressed to the state, being overwhelmed by the backlog of cases the state of India resorted to participatory planning.

The law also provides penalties for those public officials who delay or don’t comply in providing information. Officials who fail to supply information or delay, face a personal fine of 250 rupees (£3) a day.

It can also learn from the Brazilian Participatory Budgeting which involves citizens presenting their demands and priorities for civic improvement following the municipals budget allocations through discussions and negotiations, which has ultimately resulted to improved facilities and accessibility of various public welfare amenities in the municipals.

The government is commended for its initiative of enacting the law on the freedom of information guaranteeing people access to information from public and private bodies. However, there has been diverse opinion on the law regarding some of its claw back clauses limiting the right to access the information.

For the law to concretely be put to practice, education awareness need to be given to the public on the importance of law and efficiency in monitoring and evaluating the law if it meets its intended objectives.

In the spirit of supporting this initiative Policy Forum (PF), a network of 76 Tanzanian civil society organisations drawn together by their specific interest in augmenting the voice of ordinary citizens to influence policy processes that help in poverty reduction, equity and democratisation.

They are performing these with a specific focus on public money accountability at both central and local levels, conducted advocacy on freedom of information, aiming at sensitising the government officials to be able to provide information that is meant for public consumption.

The Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania as amended from time to time has adopted these human rights under Article 12 to 30 whereby Article 29(1) of the Tanzanian Constitution states “Every person in the United Republic has the right to enjoy fundamental human rights and to enjoy the benefits accruing from the fulfillment by every person of this duty to society, as stipulated under Article 12 to 28 of this Part of this Chapter of the Constitution.”

Further, Article 11(1) of the same constitution states “The state authority shall make appropriate provisions for the realisation of a person’s right to work and access to education, the right to receive assistance from the community at times of old age, sickness or infirmity and in other cases of disability.”

And Article 14 also provides that, “every person has the right to live and to the protection of his life by the society in accordance with the law.”

NURU NGAILO is an official working with the Policy Forum. She can be reached through: [email protected]