Calls for Zambia information law

The media, parliamentarians and other stakeholders in Zambia contend that the government withdrew the FOI Bill from Parliament three years ago to allow for consultation but has not been keen to bring it back to the House for implementation into law until it adjourned for the last time after five years.

The turn of events, it is feared, might affect the credibility of the due general election because the Bill, had it been enacted, would have been handy for journalists to effectively investigate shortcomings in preparations and inform the public accurately.

Zambia Union of Journalists chairperson Isabel Chimangeni challenged the government to show commitment to enactment of the FOI Bill and provide free flow of information.

Chimangeni challenged the government to ensure the elections were free and fair despite the lack of a Freedom of Information Act and that watchdogs would monitor the operations of the media during the run-up to the elections.

The media watchdogs in Zambia did not want the media to be used as scapegoats for those parties that would fail to win the elections.

She hoped that the recommendations in the report on information and broadcasting would be expedited and fully implemented for enactment into law.

Parliamentarians recently took the government to task over the delay to enact the FOI Bill into law, arguing that the “snail’s pace” by the government had not only “gagged the Press”, but was also a key concern over the credibility of elections scheduled for later this year.

Citing President Levy Mwanawasa’s sudden illness, the parliamentarians said the silence that had characterised the condition of the head of state since he suffered from a minor stroke on March 31 was unfortunate.

They contend that Mwanawasa’s illness had remained a closely guarded secret unlike in Palestine and Israel where the conditions of former leaders Yasser Arafat and Aerial Sharon were made public during their illness.

Mwanawasa has since been declared fit by a team of doctors who stated on June 18 that the head of state would be expected to resume normal presidential duties and campaigning in six weeks.

Opposition Member of Parliament Chrispine Sibetta wondered why the government could not update the nation on the condition of Mwanawasa while he was admitted in a London clinic but instead opted to apprise Zambians about the condition of former president Frederick Chiluba admitted at Garden City Clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“You were quick to tell us the situation in Johannesburg on the condition of the former president yet there was nothing from London where you flew him (Mwanawasa),” he said.

The FOI Bill was withdrawn in 2002 by the government to facilitate consultations among players. It was supposed to be debated and enacted into law during the just ended five-year-life of parliament.

Norwegian Ambassador Terje Vigtel said 2006 was not a mere election year but a period for enhancing Zambia’s institutional framework and friendships.

|The media should not only inform the public but also set an agenda for the things to be discussed,” said the ambassador.

Prominent constitutional lawyer Patrick Matibini described as lack of political will the government’s failure to enact the FOI Bill into law during the just ended life of Parliament.

“A Freedom of information law is vital in any function of democracy,” he told local media. “In fact, it is a democratic imperative. This Bill, if enacted into law, is particularly important in ensuring that citizens have access to information.”

However, the government has attributed the failure to debate and enact the FOI Bill during the just ended Parliament term to lack of sufficient time.

Chief government spokesperson Vernon Mwaanga said the Bill had been withdrawn to allow for consultation of all key players and not just the media. He pledged that the Bill would be considered for debate and subsequent enactment by Parliament after the general election.

Mwaanga said there are 40 countries, which have the freedom of information legislation out of 191 members of the United Nations and Zambia was ranked among the 80 countries that are in the process of developing the law.

“We have received representations from various stakeholders to have certain provision is in the Freedom of Information Bill revisited,” he said.

Mwaanga said the enactment of the Electoral Act 2006 was enough to provide credibility to the electoral process because it empowered the Electoral Commission of Zambia to prosecute people found wanting.

According to Mwaanga, Zambia had no proven record of rigging elections since 1964 and hoped that this year’s elections would not dent the country’s image of conducting free and fair polls.

June 2006
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