Publication: Cape Times Issued: Date: 2004-10-22 Reporter: Sheena Adams

Complaint to Public Protector About State's 'Appalling Record' on Supplying Information



Cape Times

Date 2004-10-22


Sheena Adams

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The government's appalling record in complying with its own access to information law is now the subject of a complaint to the Public Protector.

The Cape-Town based Open Democracy Advice Centre (Odac) yesterday laid a complaint with Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana following damning results from a study on implementing the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

Odac managed about 100 requests for information to government institutions from a diverse group of people, including some who were blind and illiterate. More than half were ignored. Just over a fifth, or 23%, were answered.

The remaining requests, largely made by people with disabilities, could not be submitted properly because of a lack of co-operation from officials.

The questions were for several government departments including the Presidency, Eskom, Transnet and local municipalities.

CEO of the centre, Alison Tilley, said some of the 23% of requests answered included referrals or refusals to comply.

"For instance, we asked the Department of Home Affairs for estimates in the illegal trafficking of human beings. They referred the question to the police who said trafficking was not one of their crime categories," she said.

Tilley added the results indicated a "significant failure" to implement the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

"We have a right to know but unless that is backed up by implementation by both the state and the private sector, then that right does become meaningless.

"We ... would like the Public Protector to conduct an investigation and make recommendations," she said.

Comparative studies were also conducted in Peru, Armenia, Bulgaria and Macedonia because they were transitional democracies like South Africa.

South Africa ranked last in terms of the number of requests answered. This was an indictment made more shocking by the fact that neither Macedonia nor Armenia have access to information laws, she said.

In addition to the few requests answered, government departments also largely ignored the prescribed time-frame of 30 days for responding contained in the Act.

In one case, the Department of Justice - which is primarily responsible for the Act - took eight months to respond to a request for its information manual and implementation plan.

Tilley said further problems were that the legal provisions requiring officials to assist the disabled in making requests, were not being followed.

"It's more a question of not having any systems in place to deal with requests or simply not knowing what to do with them. Many of them may not have had any training," she said.

Many government officials at the counters seemed uncomfortable with laws and tended to act cautiously when reminded of the access to information legislation.

"There also seems to be a strong correlation between officials' confidence in the process of government and their willingness to comply with requests," she said.

Tilley said a possible solution could be setting up an implementation agency for the Act, such as an Information Commission, which was part of the first draft of the legislation.

With acknowledgements to Sheena Adams and the Cape Times.