Friday, December 9, 2011

Back home, and writing for Zambia papers

In the Johannesburg airport I wrote the following piece, at the request of Antony Mukwita, deputy managing director (effectively editor-in-chief) of the Zambia Daily Mail. I sent it to him from the Atlanta airport, where I am now (Internet in Jo'burg is problematic). I did different versions for The Post and the Times of Zambia, but am giving the Mail first shot because Antony had the idea. His paper was the first I met wit but that was the luck of the draw.

By Al Cross
University of Kentucky
The elections of Sept. 20 confirmed that Zambia is a functioning, full-fledged democracy, with perhaps one major exception: Its government lacks the transparency that is needed to guarantee that the citizens can hold it accountable and prevent corruption.
This writer came to Zambia from the United States for nine days recently to help Zambians make progress on a Freedom of Information Act, a law that would make government records easily accessible to the public. The new government endorsed an open-records act before and after the election, and set itself a deadline to pass it, in about five months from now.
I congratulate the government on its stands, but hope it is not trying to assemble a working majority in Parliament before getting to work on this important legislation, because it should be a government bill in name only. It should have the support of MPs from all parties, and should not be identified as a partisan issue, because it is intended to serve the public at large and not give advantage to any party, faction or person.
Passage of open-records laws in other countries have generally not been partisan issues. In the U.S., our Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 with the signature of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and the sponsorship of Republican congressman Donald Rumsfeld, who much later was George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. The law maintains broad support in both parties.
As a long-time political reporter in the U.S., a two-time visitor to Zambia and someone who met with permanent secretaries of key ministries on my recent visit, I surely understand that some PF leaders may feel more cautious about an open-records law now that they are in government. Yes, such a law might be used against them, but there are many more records of the previous government that could be used against the opposition. What’s good for the goose will be good for the gander.
That’s one reason open-records laws are not, and should not be, partisan issues. They apply equally to everyone in government, and they allow everyone to hold the government accountable. Only those with something to hide should fear such laws.
The principle of government transparency for accountability, and prevention of corruption, has been generally recognised in democracies around the world for nearly a century. Many decades ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, my fellow Kentuckian, wrote in a decision, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” That’s why Americans often call open-government statutes “sunshine laws.”
Here’s another analogy: Open-records laws are like flashlights, which citizens can use to shine in the dark corners of government to expose and prevent wrongdoing. That was illustrated during an open discussion at the Mulungushi Conference Center Wednesday evening, by a story from Kofu Kabela of the Zambia Civic Education Association.
He told us about a head teacher at a school in a rural area who was getting government money for the school but using it to buy cattle instead of helping the school and the children. The teacher wouldn’t let the school’s parent-teacher association president see the school accounts even though the president was a co-signatory on the account!
Such outrages need to be exposed, or prevented, and that is what open-records laws can do. I know that, as a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists in the U.S. SPJ advocates freedom of information, but journalists are not the main users of open-records laws; ordinary citizens are. There aren’t enough journalists to expose and prevent all the wrongs that government officials can do; citizens must be a part of Zambia’s battle against corruption.
Because of my background in journalism and politics, I was asked to give Zambians advice on the topic, and I put into three categories: politics, principles and pitfalls.
As mentioned above, the politics should not be partisan. The PF government should fulfill its campaign promise, and other parties should join it as a matter of public interest.
The law should state some basic principles that will make it clear and strong, and give guidance to judges and other officials who will be asked to interpret it and its exceptions, which should be limited and clear.
For example, the Kentucky open-records law says records are presumed to be open, and the exceptions should be narrowly construed, without regard to possible inconvenience or embarrassment of a government official. This reflects the principle that officials do not own government records, but merely hold them in trust for the citizens.
Also, the exceptions to openness should be clear and limited, to such matters as national security, purely personal privacy, ongoing investigations, proprietary business information and preliminary recommendations of people in government.
The law should be easy and inexpensive for citizens to use, and avoid pitfalls of implementation. Citizens should have a right to inspect the records before asking for copies, or be able to order copies by mail, and the charge for copies should reflect their actual cost. (In Kentucky, we do not allow governments to charge for staff time used to find records and make copies.)
If an official denies access to a record, there should be an easy and inexpensive way to appeal the denial, without involving lawyers, and the decision should be made by an official with at least some degree of independence from the government. In many U.S. states, that is the independently elected attorney general. In Zambia, that could be someone confirmed by Parliament, so the official would be accountable to more than just the government or the ruling party.
These are just a few of the issues that will need sorting out as Zambians take this important step to perfect their democracy. I have come to know Zambia as a beautiful country with huge potential, and Zambians as a people who want it to realise that potential and not see its great assets wasted. A Freedom of Information Act opening government records to citizens would be a major step in that direction.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. He writes a political column for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, where he was chief political writer from 1989 to 2004.

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