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The need for a Freedom of Information Act

A law on the Freedom of Information (F.O.I) would be most welcoming. The introduction and promulgation of such a law will be regarded as one of the landmark achievements of the present SAJ Government, just as the law on Good Governance.
Such a piece of legislation will allow right of access to information held by public authorities. In any case, taxpayers – and anyone else for that matter – must know how public authorities spend public money: whether it is being used to buy a new car for their top executives, or whether it is being used to build a new market.
This law must provide access to information held by public authorities. In other words, public authorities are obliged to make public particular information regarding their activities and members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities, and more especially where taxpayers’ money is involved.
What is a public authority?
Public authorities include inter alia, Government departments, local authorities, the public health service, State school and colleges, universities, the Police Force. Such an act of Parliament will not cover each and every organisation that receives public money or grants. All public authorities covered by the F.O.I Act must be specifically mentioned in a schedule to the Act.
What is recorded information?
 The Act should cover any recorded information held by a public authority. Recorded information includes public documents, computer files, emails, letters, photographs, recording of telephone conversation and CCTV recordings etc.
Who can make a request for information?
Any citizen of this country, any other person, any journalist, any employee of a public authority, any company, or any foreign researcher are entitled to make a request for information held by any public authority listed in the enactment. Any person requesting information must direct his/her request to the public authority which he/she believes, may hold this information.
An Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal
A F.O.I Act must make way for an Information Commissioner with an office and a staff. The Information Commissioner’s Office (I.C.O) will be responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Act, upholding information rights in the public interest, and for promoting openness of public bodies.
Any person who is not satisfied with the way in which his/her request for information has been dealt with by the public authority or where the public authority has refused to supply him/her with the information requested, he can turn to the I.C.O for help.
There shall also be established an Information Tribunal.
Exempt information
It will not always be possible for a requester to get the information he/she is asking for from the public authority. This is because there may be good reasons why some kinds of information should be withheld. Any F.O.I Act must stipulate what information is exempt information. In other words, any information which is specified as being exempt information cannot therefore be supplied to the requester. The principle is that any information should be kept private only where there is a valid reason for being so, and the F.O.I Act permits this information not to be divulged to the public.
I will here mention a few points that have not been dealt with above:
Tribunals, Courts of Law and other bodies that have judicial functions do not have to provide information about their activities or functions.
All public authorities must be able to supply the requested information within a reasonable time or within a limited period as specified in the F.O.I Act.
If a requester is not receiving a response from the public authority he/she has written to for certain information, he/she can send the authority a reminder and also inform the authority that he will report the matter to the I.C.O.
A public authority can refuse to supply certain information if it is of a vexatious nature or if this information can be obtained somewhere else. Again, if a public authority decides that the information requested cannot be made public, it must inform the requester and explain why it is so.
Some kinds of information may be withheld and cannot be supplied to a requester, for example if the release of the information would prejudice national security or damage commercial interests.
 A law on the F.O.I is important in a democracy because it guarantees the public a right to know what public authorities are doing with taxpayers’ money. It helps to expose corruption and maladministration and ensures transparency in public decision making. Such a law exists in more than 90 countries.
Any Court of Law when examining whether certain information should be disclosed or not has the responsibility to weigh the case for confidentiality against the public interest in having the information disclosed. There is a presumption or assumption in favour of disclosure of the information in the public interest. Information held by public authorities should be kept private only where there is good reason and it is permitted by the F.O.I Act.

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