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Strengthening access to information


By Nyasha Frank Mpahlo/Donald Nyarota

The media’s traditional role is to inform the public on issues of the day accurately and fairly and to do so while respecting a professional code of ethics. In shaping public opinion media plays a crucial role in a healthy democracy, in some sense it can be considered as the backbone of democracy.

In Zimbabwe, the media landscape is a dichotomy of public and private media, polarised in their reportage. The media should promote public debate and policy advocacy for a peaceful and inclusive society for the improvement of marginalised and vulnerable groups. Access to information from government is a fundamental democratic right which is provided for in the Constitution, yet rarely enjoyed when needed.

Selective application of the law has extended to the media, essentially translating to a clampdown on the right of access to information. This has widespread negative impacts, with aftershocks felt across all sectors, in any democratic society which values and protects fundamental freedoms. Resultantly, civic society roles and functions are thus limited and curtailed by lack of access to information to provide oversight on government.

And in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic, government saw a case in increasing the barriers of access to information. In so many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has been extended and manipulated as a smokescreen to deprive citizens of adequate access to information from the regulations that were put in place by the government and state institutions.

Mining sector oiling opaqueness

The signing of the petroleum exploration development and production agreement (PEDPA) between the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) and two Australian firms Geo-Associates and Invictus, should under normal circumstances signal a cause for jubilation and hope.

However, this unprecedented development over possible oil deposit can only be viewed with cautions optimism as previous natural resources discoveries have failed to translate to economic development. Discovery of Chiadzwa diamonds, for example has failed to transform into sustainable benefits. These announcements have given rise to much excitement for ‘ordinary’ Zimbabweans hoping for improvements in their living conditions, it seems government is looking forward to billions of dollars in export revenues and foreign direct investment (FDI).

In fact, of the key revenues generated from the diamond fields, is the much touted US$15 billion revenue generated but that never reached national purse. These experiences have built mistrust further vindicated by the lack of open contracting in this project, as the finer details of the agreement are not yet accessible. When the financial obligations of the investors including the revenue sharing agreements with governments are not accessible for public scrutiny it provides rent seeking opportunities for corrupt government officials.

More often than not, local authorities, divorced in critical negotiation phases of such mining projects, are left to shoulder environmental cost while investors shift profits. This state of affairs makes it difficult for community-based organization and pressure groups to demand mineral revenue transparency because of the lack of evidence, which should normally be derived from the media. Furthermore, the lack of open contracting means that both the media and community initiatives cannot play their watchdog and oversight role as a matter of evidence-based advocacy.

Agricultural sector, a shrouded new season 

Food security challenges have bedeviled the country for the last two decades punctuated by periodical droughts and lean season. This has prompted the government to respond and extend its presidential input scheme to rural areas.

In 2019 government introduced a climate proofing conservation project targeted at resuscitating rural farming entitled Pfumvudza. This is a crop production intensification approach under which farmers ensure the efficient use of resources (inputs and labor) on a small area of land in order to optimize its management.

However, information on the number of farmers who benefited from this program and how funds were disbursed, including inputs remains inaccessible including an audit of the program itself. Reports unearthed in press publications on politicization of distribution of these inputs has not be responded to nor investigated by government.

This lack of information has deprived the organised community groups and civil society to effectively play their social accountability role in bringing the government to account for its actions, thus creating mistrust in the ability of the government to deliver its mandate.

Of COVID-19 and corruption

Zimbabwe’s government has failed to meet its own health budget target, a regional agreement under the Abuja Agreement of the Africa Union indicates that countries will spend at least 15% of their annual budget on this critical sector. Perennial under funding and reliance on donor funds has pervaded this sector.

The global COVID-19 pandemic, ushered in a venue for brazen government officials to swindle funds by over pricing procurement. Corruption in the health sector can mean the difference between life and death. Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ) recently launched reports on corruption and illicit financing in the health sector. The corruption report underlines the existence of various forms of corruption and gross inconsistencies that affect access to quality health services.

These include public procurement corruption, nepotism, and theft of essential medicines, bribery and absenteeism by medical health workforce. Tellingly at least 75% of respondents indicated the lack of trust in the health care sector, while over 80% had experienced corruption in accessing health services. Notwithstanding previous calls against the ongoing crackdown of investigative journalists in Zimbabwe for exposing of corruption linked to the COVID-19, there is need to protect media and whistleblower.

Resultantly, community’s initiatives which seeks to demand transparency in health sector provision are affected from the lack of information and data advocacy which they heavily rely from the media.

COVID-19-related information and data should be gathered in a single, easy-to-find platform at the appropriate level of government (ward level, local government, and central government) to allow for specific assessments of the government plans around the pandemic.

To allay suspicions of corruption in the COVID-19 procurement government must publish information including data on the situation, resources, public procurement, budgets and funds around the response. Media must be given priority access to such information to allow for timely dissemination to the community.

Information sharing must be comprehensible to the public and disseminated proactively through alternative media (social media, local notice boards, print, and radio) not only on daily statistical tables but to also include important financial information.

Way forward

Government should aim to promote a free pluralistic media which operates with limited legal regulations considering co-regulation as a viable option of regulation, to ensure that citizens can access information from various media.

Contract transparency should be ideal and should be contained within the Mines and Mineral Bill which is still under amendment, to enable the media and the CSO sector to have greater oversight over the government.

Joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) must be made a priority to ensure that government allows for scrutiny of operations across the mining value chain. This will also provide the media a bird’s eye view of the sector and enhance their watchdog role.

Publication of all laws should take place not only in official journals, but also in accessible places, ensuring clarity of communication about the rules to the public and businesses. There should be transparency on the implementation of the laws, including on police action, sanctions imposed, and court processes.

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