The new Freedom of Information Bill became law yesterday after being gazetted following the approval of the final amended version from Parliament by President Mnangagwa.
The new Act, a giant step forward in the reform agenda, repeals the long-criticised Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA)and brings Zimbabwe’s information-related laws into conformity with the Declaration of Rights in the Constitution.
The initial draft went through a long examination and multi-party amendment process by Parliament, and especially through the relevant portfolio committee, which is chaired by an opposition MP.
In a statement last night, the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Senator Monica Mutsvangwa said the coming of the Act “marks a notable milestone in Government’s media legislative reform programme. The promulgation of the Act by President Mnangagwa has repealed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). Since assuming office in August 2018, he immediately prioritised the creation of a conducive national media environment through the repeal of AIPPA and the amendment of the Broadcasting Services Act.
“The enactment of the Freedom of Information Act is indeed a momentous occasion, not only for Government ,but for the media fraternity and the citizens. AIPPA had aroused a lot of animosity over the years.”
The Minister noted that the Act provided citizens and media practitioners with the right to access information as espoused by the Constitution through providing the legal frameworks and mechanisms for accessing information from public and private bodies.
“One such mechanism is the mandatory designation of Information Officers in all public and private entities that shall be responsible for handling information requests and disclosure of information to the public.
“I am happy that the Second Republic Government has enacted a law that Zimbabweans will undoubtedly take pride in as it caters for all citizens regardless of their race, colour, creed, religion, cultural beliefs and political persuasions.
“Once again, the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill into law serves as a testimony of President ED Mnangagwa’s total commitment to instituting reforms in line with international best practices. By the same token, it shows what Zimbabweans can achieve when they commit to work together.”
She thanked the President, Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, the public and in particular stakeholders in the media fraternity for all they had done.
The President has also approved the International Treaties Act, 2020 that seeks to provide a uniform procedure for the consideration, approval, ratification and publication of international treaties, and that too was gazetted into law yesterday.
The Act was a product of consensus after it was passed with full support of Zanu PF and opposition MPs after a lengthy drafting and amending process.
The basic concept behind the Bill is that all information held by public institutions, including State owned companies, can potentially be made public, with the exception of Cabinet discussions and certain information in victim friendly courts.
However, the new mandatory information officer in each entity, who is either the head of that entity or a person appointed by the head, has up to 21 days to consider each request for information and can refuse to make all or some of the requested information public, but under strictly set criteria, and all these decisions are subject to appeal.
Generally what can be barred are some defence and national security information, plus certain financial matters like proposed taxes in the pipeline, secret industrial processes, diplomatic matters, and some personal details of individuals. Where third parties are involved in the requested information, they have the right to agree or to make representations on why the information should not be released.
Rules are more relaxed when information is wanted on an individual person dead for more than 20 years, or on diplomatic matters more than 20 ago.
But when an information request is refused, full reasons must be given, and there is an automatic appeal process, first to the Zimbabwe Media Commission and then to the High Court. Deadlines are tight, 21 days to consider the request and 30 days for the media commission to hear the appeal. Within two months of a request that the relevant entity backed by the commission does not want to grant, the matter can be in front of a judge.
The Bill sets out the procedure of access to information held by public institutions or information held by any person, which is necessary for the exercise or protection of a right.
It also sets out considerations for making available, on a voluntary basis by entities, certain categories of information thereby removing the need for formal requests for such information.
Private entities fall under the same rules, but only when the rights of an individual are involved.
Speaking on behalf of the Portfolio Committee on Information, Media and Broadcasting Services following the passage of the Bill in March, Mbizo legislator Mr Settlement Chikwinya (MDC Alliance) thanked Government for the inclusivity in coming up with the Bill.
“At the point of drafting these laws, that is the laws which are repealing AIPPA, from the point of drafting Parliament was included. We went to Nyanga with the drafters and we had our input,” he said.
“At consultation stage and even at the point of cleaning up the areas where we did not find each other, we had a round-table meeting where the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Information and Parliament were involved. I believe that such a process will remove some of the political undertones which we may have in terms of suspicion. So I hope that the precedent can actually be sustained.”
Zanu PF representative for Makonde, Cde Kindness Paradza who is also a member of the committee, said he was happy that AIPPA would be repealed.
“I just want to say that I am so happy for this 9th Parliament that we have all agreed to make sure that we tear down AIPPA which was a bad law and that Bill is going to repeal this law. So, we are very happy. I am vindicated because in 2003, I stood up here and I said this was a bad law and I was hounded out of the party because of that. I just want to put it on record that I am so happy because I am vindicated,” Cde Paradza said.
Under the International Treaties Act, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade shall be the principal custodian and principal national depositary of all international treaties.
The ministry shall also open and maintain an official archive of all international treaties currently in force, access to which shall be afforded to any interested person subject to such conditions, including the payment of any fee for access to the archive or the provision of authenticated copies of any international treaty.
The new Act also provides for the establishment of a committee, called the Public Agreements Advisory Committee, consisting of: a person nominated by the Attorney-General after consultation with the minister responsible for justice, who shall be the chairperson of PAAC; a senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade appointed by the minister, who shall be the secretary of PAAC; a senior official in the ministry responsible for finance nominated by the minister responsible for finance and a person nominated by the Office of the President and Cabinet.
The functions of PAAC shall be to scrutinise all international treaties and where appropriate, to recommend the approval or scrutiny of bilateral or multilateral agreements other than international treaties and to recommend or decline to recommend approval of any international treaty.
The Act also says international treaties shall be concluded under President’s authority except as otherwise provided by the Constitution or by or under an Act of Parliament.