Chairperson of International Conference of Information Commissioners Ms. Elizabeth Denham, The Host of the ICIC Adv. Tlakula and Members of the Information Regulator, Information Commissioners, Representative of UNESCO Mr. Guy Berger, The Vice Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Mr Lawrence Mute, Members of the Diplomatic Corp.
It is my singular honour and a privilege to be invited to welcome all the esteemed Information Commissioners, Ombudsmen; Ambassadors, representatives of UNESCO, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, representatives from the offices of Information Commissioners and Ombudsmen, representatives from international, regional and national non-governmental organisations, government officials, academics, and all public and private stakeholders to the eleventh International Conference of Information Commissioners to this prestigious event.
We all have one thing in common and that is that we believe that access to information is important. The right of access to information is the very centrepiece of democracy. Access to information promotes transparency, accountable government, good governance and more broadly, it is important for the realisation of various other rights including the right of freedom of expression, the right to vote, and socio-economic rights. A UNESCO statement on access to information aptly expresses the importance of this right as follows:
“Information can change the way we see the world around us, our place in it, and how to adjust our lives in order to maximize the benefits available through our local resources. Fact driven decision-making can significantly alter our political, social and economic perspectives. The right to access information can be interpreted within the legal frameworks that support Freedom of Information as it applies to information held by public bodies, or in a wider sense to encompass both access and circulation of information held by other actors, where it becomes intrinsically linked to Freedom of Expression.”
In terms of section 32 of the Constitution of South Africa, every person is to be afforded the right of access to information held by the State and also by any person which he or she requires in order to enforce or protect rights which that person has. Our Constitution has both vertical and horizontal application. It thus regulates the relationship between the State and its subjects, as well as the relationships between private persons. As a result, the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000 (PAIA) provides for access to information held by public bodies and private bodies.
The motivation for giving effect to the right of access to information was to counter the culture of secrecy that shrouded both public and private spheres during the apartheid regime. PAIA was adopted to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in both public and private bodies, and to promote a society in which the people of South Africa have effective access to information to enable them to fully exercise and protect all their rights. The principles that PAIA embraces are in stark contrast to the cloak of secrecy that clung to those in power during the apartheid regime. South Africa’s PAIA is unique in that it permits access to records held by private as well as public bodies.
The right of access to information is of augmenting importance domestically, especially given increased instances of poor governance, corruption and irregular spending within South Africa, coupled with systemic violations of socio-economic rights. The legislative landscape regulating access to information in South Africa is poised to significantly change soon. PAIA will be amended and administered by the Information Regulator. This transition marks a promising development in realising the right of access to information, in the light of the improved enforceability mechanisms that will be introduced through the amendment of the PAIA. The extended enforcement powers entrusted to the Regulator will further help to combat a culture of secrecy and its various manifestations such as a lack of accountability and transparency, as well as corruption.
PAIA was the first freedom of information (FoI) law to be enacted on the continent. It is notable that your hosts played a key role in the promotion of access to information on the continent. The Chairperson of the Information Regulator was the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights from 2005 to 2017. During her tenure as the Special Rapporteur she noted that it is essential to show governments that they hold information ‘not for themselves but as custodians of the public good’; that proactive disclosure of information is not a privilege but an obligation owed by elected representatives to the people; and that the creation and proper management of information not only was beneficial for the citizenry, but also imperative for the development and effective implementation of laws and policies.
In November 2010 the African Commission adopted Resolution 167, a Resolution on Securing the Effective Realisation of Access to Information in Africa. This marked the beginning of a two-and-a-half-year long process managed by the Centre for Human Rights (CHR) of the University of Pretoria, the other host of the ICIC 2019, for the development of a Model Law on Access to Information for Africa, under the leadership of its Special Rapporteur. The Model Law was adopted by the African Commission on 23 February 2013. The adoption of the Model Law was a landmark event in the access to information trajectory on the African continent. It had an immense impact on access to information on the continent as the number of African states with such FOI laws grew from five to more than 22.
The ICIC is an important milestone in the promotion of access to information on the African continent and international. The theme of the conference, namely “International cooperation to strengthen public access to information” is apt as delegates are from across the globe representing more than fifty countries.
It is significant that this eleventh ICIC is held on the African continent and in South Africa, in particular, just two months before the national and provincial elections. It is my hope that this event will advance the right of access to information across all sectors of society, especially in Africa. It is also notable that a closed workshop will be held on the 13th of March 2019 for Information Commissioners and Ombudsmen with the express purpose of constituting the ICIC as a permanent international organisation. It is fitting that this historic milestone of the ICIC takes place in South Africa.
On behalf of your hosts and the government of South Africa I wish to note that we highly appreciate your attendance and participation at the ICIC 2019. With these remarks, wish you successful and fruitful deliberations during your conference. It is my pleasure to hereby declare the ICIC 2019 as officially open.