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Free Press is a MUST Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Matongo Maumbi, Zambia Feb 19, 2005
Citizen Journalism   Opinions
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Without the press, no single government in the world can operate, because the press is the fourth most important estate after the executive, judiciary and legislature in any democratic state. And for the press to be really appreciated as the fourth estate, they must be accorded the freedom to access information.

In 1802, former US President Thomas Jefferson wrote that “where it is left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

This therefore means journalists are supposed to play a watchdog role over the government. For them to perform this role, they must have undeniable access to information. Unfortunately, like many African countries, Zambia does not have a Freedom of Information Act written in the constitution.

Many countries instead have the Official Secrets Acts so vaguely written that officials can interpret them in a way to avoid scrutiny of their actions or they may wish to hide something from the public. Such acts also prevent citizens from verifying information held by powerful institutions and indeed leaders of influential positions.

There is also the Public Order Act that can be used to deny the media access to information, arrest and detain journalists or search a media institution’s premises and confiscate material. These acts are sometimes justified on grounds of state security.

While it is necessary for any government to protect national security, our government often fails to distinguish between state secrets and information that has no implication on that security.

Public interest arguments might include the need for properly informed debate, exposing wrongdoing, protecting the public from danger, accounting for public funds, demonstrating that standards are being observed--that authorities are properly discharging their responsibilities and ensuring that people are dealt with fairly and not misled.

If information is withheld, the authorities should tell you which exemption it has relied on, why it thinks the public interest favours confidentiality and how to challenge the decision. The first step should be to complain under the authority’s own complaints procedure, when a more senior official with greater authority to release information is likely to be involved. Strictly speaking, it is the authorities’ job to show why information should not be disclosed, not yours to prove that it can. But if you feel the authorities may have an exaggerated view of the potential harm from disclosure or has failed to recognise public interest in openness, you should point that out.

This is a crucial period. We are expected to have elections in 2006, but without the press having access to information, it is most probable that rightful leaders will be left out. The electorate largely depends on the media for information on the candidates. This is because they do not have physical contact with the candidates.

As a free press plays a watchdog role on the government in any democratic state, people can get the information they need to exercise independent judgment in electing public officials who favour the policies they support.

The press is a major link between the governed and the governors. The governors convey their policies to the governed through the media. The governed also respond through the media. For people to make an informed choice, they must be informed correctly about the goings-on in the country and also about the candidates.

A lack of access hinders the free-flow of information. It promotes rumour-mongering among the citizenry. This ultimately breeds and sustains bad governance and in the long run hinders the democratic process.

Denial of access promotes unaccountability from the powers that be; abuse of citizens’ rights and corruption, which has characterized many African countries including Zambia. Without access to rightful information, corrupt practices cannot be exposed.

A one-sided press befools society. The Freedom Of Information Act is not for fast-breaking stories. You’re more likely to wait weeks than hours for information. But if you’re dealing with an issue that will still be the news in a month’s time or gradually putting a big story together, the Act is just what we need.

There is no special trick to making a request. Apply in writing or by fax or email to the authorities concerned. It’s a good idea to say you’re applying under the Act, but strictly speaking, you don’t need to. Any written request is automatically valid. You can ask to be sent photocopies of the originals, have material emailed or ask to inspect records in person. The authorities are required to comply with your preferences. Photocopies may give you a better feel for how much information has been withheld than a printout with the gaps closed up.

Information to the media is denied in various ways. The most common one is to delay official comment or refuse comment altogether. This prompts the media to publish the story without a comment and sometimes the story is dropped, as it might be one-sided or unsubstantiated.

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Writer Profile
Matongo Maumbi

Matongo Maumbi aka Afromatrix, is a producer at Radio Chikuni in southern rural Zambia on 91.8fm. I have been a practicing journalist since 2000 and ICTs for development in rural areas and youth related issues have been of particular interest. I have an interest in writing, and when I do it's a good piece. I believe that sharing such information with a wider group can enhance good growth on my part in Chikuni and the other parts of the world.
I am male and 24 years old, single and hope to marry the girl I have intimate emotions with.
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