Access to information during times of elections is increasingly becoming a focal-point across the world, and certainly in the African region. The rise of conservative political formations and populist movements, the growing prevalence of misinformation and disinformation and the scale of its amplification through technology, as well as the use of security and public order management by State actors as a strategy to suppress free expression and information, are just some of the major dimensions the discussion is taking in Africa as it pertains to living up to the responsibility of delivering free, fair and credible elections.
The credibility of recent elections in the region has been marred by violence, the restriction of speech and the functional means to access information about developments in elections including the closure of media outlets, the detention of journalists and the intentional disruption of telecommunication services by State actors. The implementation of coherent access to information frameworks and mechanisms in Africa has been a long-standing priority in the region. Without access to information throughout the elections cycle, the electorate is manifestly excluded from participation in these crucial political moments. This has direct implications for peace, security and stability.
To respond to this problem, a key development in the region has been the 2018 launch of the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These Guidelines complement other regional instruments like the African Charter on Democracy, Election and Governance and the Model Law on Access to Information as well as build on the lessons learned from sub-regional initiatives such as the SADC Guidelines on Media coverage of Elections, which fesmediaAfrica supported the development of in 2012. They provide a regional and technology-now set of standards for how freedom of information can and should be realized during times of elections, a list of the categories of information that specific stakeholders must proactively disclose as well as the roles and responsibilities of State and non-State actors.
The fesmedia Africa organized session Doing what it takes: Making the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa Worksought to explore ways of strengthening awareness and use of this soft-law instrument. The session was led by a panel consisting of journalists, civil society actors and development workers in the field of freedom of information and expression.
Dr Ololade Shyllon who led the drafting process which produced the Guidelines presented them as an “important set of standards for the [African] region which elaborate how to ensure that information about the whole electoral cycle can reach citizens.” She continued that “in addition to the definition of roles and responsibilities, the thinking of the Working Group was to also define the key information that needed to be proactivelydisclosed during the election cycle to give citizens the confidence that the election had been a free and fair process.”
Mr Saikou Jammeh, the Secretary General of the Gambia Press Union remarked on the usefulness of the Guidelinesbeyond the technical community who drafted it. “Firstly, it is really understandable for the ordinary citizen to refer to and use if they want to understand the roles and responsibilities of each of the various stakeholders.” He added that a key feature of the instrument was that “it goes as far as describing the appropriate checks and balances that apply to each of the stakeholders so they can be held accountable for any failures.”
Discussing the applicability of the Guidelinesfor the newest African country in a democratic transition, Ms Bethlehem Negash, who sits on the media law reform committee in Ethiopia, gave a picture of the issues facing the Committee in Ethiopia, which is preparing for elections in 2020 following a momentous democratic transition to a reformist government led by Abiy Ahmed. “In total there are about 19 laws indirectly affecting to the media and some of them are directly related to the media,” she said. “The first thing what we did was to look at business, which are directly related to the media and critique them in light of the [elaboration of] the right to access information, the right for freedom of speech, and the Guidelines. We have identified so many problems with the laws and lots of gaps where the government was holding information back which was mandatory for them to publish as public information.” Mr Jammeh described a similar situation in The Gambia whereby there was “still a perception among civil servants that public information belongs to the state and may only be accessed by state officials because they are the ‘public’ in ‘public sector.’ ” The effect of this is that it continues to be very difficult to access crucial and relevant public information, generally, and elections-related information specifically.
Mr Kuda Hove, of MISA Zimbabwe, described the expression of the technology dimensions further complicating this issue. “There are some problems with the forms in which elections information like the voters roll is made available.” He explained how, in spite of the responsibility electoral management bodies have to publish relevant public information in accessible forms, the voters roll in Zimbabwe is still difficult to access in useable electronic form from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, and where it is, it is impossible to use technology to run searches through it because it is a scan of a printed document. “This means that you have to search for your details manually because the pdf is not machine readable. Zimbabwe has over 5 million registered voters, so how do we expect to independently verify all of that information efficiently and effectively without the help of technology?”
Intentional disruptions of communication infrastructure, including internet shutdowns, also emerged as a significant problem across African States. Mr Hove explained how State actors were increasingly using the strategy “under the guise of public order management or preventing the spread of fake news.” But instead of maintaining public order in Zimbabwe, he explained, this exposed people to more risks of harm because they could not avoid the wave of military violence coming their way. “The problems governments say they want to prevent using internet shutdowns are only made worse by blocking the means of communication, and easily resolved when there is proactive disclosure of credible information about what is happening throughout the election period.”
From the questions that emerged from the floor, it was clear that there was little awareness of the Guidelines and how they could be applied to strengthen or even frame electoral management legislation across Africa. Participants expressed their enthusiasm for the instrument as a measure that could potentially improve the credibility of elections in their respective countries. Many were very interested in receiving examples of where the Guidelines had been adopted, what lessons had been learned in the process and how they had lent themselves to collaborative ways of working between electoral management bodies, journalists and civil society.
Being less than a year old, the Guidelines require further popularization and the appropriate regional and national scaffolding needed to make them enforceable. fesmediaAfrica is exploring projects and partnerships that would contribute towards making this possible through its programmes.