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Friday, 18 November 2011

Preventing Corruption and Freedom of Information

A recent JCTR article makes the following observations on the link between fighting corruption and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill :
Promoting the right to freedom of expression is another way of preventing corruption. This right facilitates participation and it is significant to all the efforts we enlist in our fight against corruption. Government can then make certain that free flow of information is allowed. This would encourage us to denounce corruption cases. Yet since most of the information we may receive is transmitted through reporters and editors, who can be bribed, it may not be enough that we simply advocate for the protection of these rights. Information is vital to preventing corruption. If the people have a right and access to public information, then they can know what is going on in their society and hence be able to freely and actively participate in the fight against corruption. It is for this reason that the Freedom of Information Bill becomes law and be enshrined in the constitution.
There are three fundamental problems with the above assessment.

The first, is that corruption is not uniform. It is not a one size fits all. In  many of its pieces the JCTR has a tendency to veer unconsciously from one form of corruption to the next without clarity. It is common to read them and other commentator say, “corruption is on the increase”, without explaining what is actually meant by the term “corruption”. The Laws of Zambia (ACC Act No 42 of 1996) defines corruption as :“the soliciting, accepting, giving or offering of a gratification by way of a bribe or other personal temptation or inducement, or the misuse of abuse of a public office for private advantage or benefit”. This is a broad definition, with several vices falling under the term “corruption”. This includes bribery; public theft; political corruption; wilful mismanagement; and, nepotism. Unless we are precise in our definition of corruption we wont come up with effective solutions to a given problem. More on this in our monthly essay - Understanding Corruption in Zambia

This brings us to the second problem - not all corruption can be solved by provision of information. The JCTR is right that freedom of information legislation may help prevent "corruption", but only for certain forms of corruption.  For example, Freedom of Information wont stop bribery between individuals. Freedom of Information won't stop political corruption. In fact Freedom of Information won't stop nepotism nor indeed public theft. Why? Freedom of information simply requests information from Government. The Government can always refuse to release because it is "sensitive" or because it does not hold the information. Which is usually the case where plunder is involved. The same civil servants who are in charge of answering the FOI request would the same corrupt civil servants who you want to expose. Where information is likely to be useful is where such information allows us to assess "wilful mismanagement". Public spending data is going to be the main form of data we should hope to use FOI for. So perhaps JCTR needs to revist its demand for this legislation, if corruption fighting is all it has in mind.

Finally, conflating FOI and corruption clouds the broader needs for FOI.The call for FOI is better grounded in terms of "right" language and general expectations of transparency. The argument should be that people have a "right" to information that the Government holds about them and the money it spends. It should also be emphasised that democratic maturity must come with greater openness. But to argue that FOI will reduce corruption is folly because of the multifaceted nature of corruption and also because it takes more than an FOI request to convict a corrupt official.

But even as the JCTR agitates for FOI they must be balanced in their assessment. The article does not mention the huge costs associated with Freedom of Information e.g. resource costs (some has to handle your query), IT / computerisation equipment (need I say more?) and biggest of them all the need for an Information Regulator. A whole new office dedicated to ensure your requests are being taken serious. Incidentally, as with every new legislation, where parties disagree the matter ends up in court (more cases for the Judiciary to handle on top the corruption cases). It might be that on the balance the social benefits of freedom of information outweigh the costs, but we should not overlook the costs involved as we debate these issues. A balanced assessment is needed informed by real numbers. Will the real JCTR please stand up?

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