Public has the Right to See, but Incurs Stumbling Blocks
Although individuals and institutions have the right to access documents and information which is held by the state, government institutions are apparently increasingly sluggish to make this information available.
The South African History Archive (Saha), a Johannesburg organisation that assists individuals to gain access to information which is held by the state, said that more than two thirds of the applications that they have handled in the last two years have failed, or departments could not execute the request within the prescribed time.
The Promotion of Access to Information Act, which came into effect in March 2001, determines that any individual or organisation has the right to access government information that affects him or her.
Dr Richard Young, head of an electronics company in Cape Town, has just used this law to successfully obtain documents regarding the government's controversial arms deal. (Read the article attached.)
Statistics in possession of Dr Verne Harris, director of Saha, however indicates that most government departments do not go out of their way to make information and documents available.
Harris said in 2001, the year in which the act came into effect, Saha lodged 24 requests to 4 government agencies. Of these only 11 (46%) succeeded, 2 (8%) were refused and 11 had not been processed by the end of the year.
"In 2002 the obstinacy of government institutions in their processing of requests has however become a significant factor," said Harris. Then 96 requests were made to 21 institutions. Only 27 (or 28%) succeeded, 40 (or 42%) were refused and 37 had not been processed by the end of the year.
Harris said the Department of Defence is the government department that reacts the best and the fastest to requests, while the National Archive takes the longest to issue documents.
Statistics on the success of the act must be kept by the Human Rights Commission (HRC), but the commission has for the past two years not made any statistics available.
Mr Leon Wessels of the HRC said they hope to have their first report on the functioning of the act submitted to parliament by the middle of this year.
He admitted that they themselves experience problems in obtaining confidential information from government departments.
In some cases the departments say they never received any requests, while newspaper articles indicate otherwise.
Harris said their experience indicates that many government institutions merely try to ignore requests for information in the hope that the applicants will be discouraged and not have the resources to go to court to force them to hand over the documents.
The times when Saha indeed went to court to force institutions to hand over documents, the cases were settled out of court.
In the case between Young and the Auditor-General, the first time that aspects of the act were tested in a court, judge Willie Hartzenberg made it clear that institutions cannot say that they do not have sufficient personnel to execute the requests for documents.
"If this means that (the Auditor-General) must appoint additional staff (to adhere to the request), then that must be done," the judge said in his finding.
With acknowledgements to Pieter Malan and Rapport.