Maputo — Several Mozambican civil society organisations have demanded that the Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, should place on its agenda, without further delay, a debate on a freedom of information bill.
Seven years ago, after lengthy public discussions, the Mozambican chapter of the regional press freedom body MISA (Media Institute of Southern Africa) deposited the draft of such a bill with the Assembly.
But parliamentary deputies, despite verbal commitments to freedom of information, have let the draft gather dust on the Assembly's shelves.
In a letter sent to Assembly chairperson Veroniva Macamo, the civil society organisations point out that a freedom of information act "will allow the state to bring the voice of the people into development processes, opening the paths to ensure that all vital forces in society, and particularly vulnerable groups, have a word to say".
Information, the letter adds, "is necessary to ensure the long term sustainability of projects and programmes", and the legal vacuum on the right to information "has prejudiced full exercise of this right by citizens".
This was becoming "a serious obstacle to the credibility of the state and to achieving the other fundamental rights and freedoms that are connected to the right to information".
The letter notes that, in the absence of freedom of information legislation, "citizens, particularly those living a long distance from the urban centres, have not taken part in development and governance processes.
Most of these people do not even know that that they have the right to participate in matters concerning their own lives".
The letter warned that "the current scenario leads us to believe that the Mozambican state is tending to become ever more closed in areas that are crucial for the democratisation of the country and for the existence of a free civil society".
Failure to put the issue on the parliamentary agenda "is an indicator that the State has little sense of transparency and of sharing information with society".
MISA spent three years drafting and redrafting its freedom of information bill and delivered it to the Assembly in November 2005. The MISA bill sought to ensure access to data held by the public administration or by private bodies that provide public services. Journalists have often been denied access to such data with claims by officials that the information is "secret" or "confidential".
If the MISA bill were to become law, citizens will be able to consult all official documents free of charge and take copies of them. Requests for such access may only be denied if the matter concerned affects national security, if it would seriously damage the fight against crime, if publication would seriously damage the legitimate commercial interests of third parties, or if it would violate the private life of others.
The bill contains public interest clauses that could override claims of national security or commercial secrecy - for example, where public health, violation of human rights or environmental risks are involved.
The problem has always been to lobby a sufficient number of parliamentary deputies to ensure that they sponsor the bill and put it on the parliamentary agenda. Seven years have passed, and neither the ruling Frelimo Party nor the main opposition party, the former rebel movement, Renamo, have made any attempt to table the MISA bill.
The next session of the Assembly is scheduled to begin on 22 October. It remains to be seen whether this time freedom of information finds its way onto the agenda.
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