Friday, December 2, 2011

Making the case for a Zambian FOIA

Not all journalists in Zambia believe the country needs a Freedom of Information Act. That was made clear today at the government-owned ZNBC television network, when my interviewer implicitly questioned whether a "developing democracy" such as Zambia really needs such a law or is ready for it. He wasn't playing devil's advocate.

I responded by subtly challenging his premise, saying that Zambia's recent election had proven that it was functioning pretty well as a democracy, and that passage of a FOIA would be a logical next step in its development. I tried to debunk the common notion that having such a law is only of interest to journalists; I said I have told government officials here (and seen some eyes roll) that a democratic government doesn't really own records, it holds them in trust for the public, because it is the public that the government must serve, and the public needs records to hold the government fully accountable.

Passing a Zambian FOIA may be difficult. It would be the first in sub-Sarahan Africa, and perhaps the entire continent. It will probably need to go hand-in-hand with self-regulation of the news media, which I also discussed on ZNBC. I used the British Press Complaints Commission (described in an earlier item) as an example. I led off by saying I was the first of five UK faculty members who will be coming to Zambia over the next five months.

It will be interesting to see what airs on ZNBC's 7 p.m. news. At that hour I will lose my easy access to the Internet, so this item will be updated. I halfway expected them to hold the piece until the weekend, because of the George W. Bush visit today and tomorrow, but the interviewer said he expected it to run tonight. (His given name was Godfrey but he didn't have a card so his last name will also have to come later.)

My other interview today was a live one at Q FM, a station that mixes African pop music with news and occasional interviews. In that interview I made most of the same points but said more about my initial visit to Zambia, a year and a half ago, and how there no longer seems to be much debate about statutory vs. self regulation. I also mentioned the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists and repeated the URL, (

I was scheduled to meet with officials at the Home Ministry today, but like a meeting we have yet to have at another government ministry, this one had to be rescheduled a second time. It seems having a new government, by a party that has never governed and succeeded one that had power for 21 years, creates almost-daily crises in Parliament or elsewhere.

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