KNOWLEDGE is at the core of meaningful, dignified and sustainable existence for any sane human being.
Resultantly, the Right to Know is now widely accepted — globally and at home, as a fundamental human right. That right has also now come to be accepted as a critical cornerstone to the flourishing of democracy in any modern society.
Today, as Zimbabwe joins the world in commemorating the International Right to Know Day, too huge a part of the population continues to exist under a lamentable knowledge-gap in various critical areas.
For instance, few Zimbabweans know fully about how proceeds from diamond sales are allocated.
This is therefore a good time for reflection on the all-important right to know.
Commemoration of the International Right to Know Day began on September 28 2002, when Freedom of Information (FOI) organisations from around the world congregated in Sofia, Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network, a global coalition working together to promote the Right of Access to Information; and the benefits of open, transparent, and accountable governments.
The right essentially relates to policies and laws that make governmental (and quasi-governmental) records and other information, available to persons who request access to the same.
The sought-for-information is ordinarily availed either directly to the requestor, or indirectly by way of publication or broadcasting on the various media platforms of contemporary mass communication.
Freedom of expression and press freedom, and access to information, are therefore central to the fulfilment of the right to know.
While the Constitution of Zimbabwe does not explicitly pronounce the right to know as one of the known Fundamental Rights, this right can justly be derived from a number of important sections. Sections 61 and 62 of the Constitution are particularly pertinent, providing as they do, for Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Media; and Access to Information, respectively.
Further, in setting out the Founding Values and Principles of Zimbabwe, the Constitution recognises the inherent dignity and worth (both of these values linked to knowledge) of each human being.
Also acknowledged as constitutionally important, are good governance, multi-party democratic political system; then transparency, justice, accountability and responsiveness.
Should these values and principles, as read with sections 61 and 62, be respected by government, agents of government and by non-governmental individuals and institutions, then the Access to Information and right to know agenda would immensely burgeon.
Incidentally, in terms of the Liturgical Guide of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, today also happens to be Social Communications Sunday — that is to say a day for reflection on the utility of the various forms of the media in spreading the Gospel.
Since this discussion is neither a sermon nor a theological treatise, the matter at hand is confined only to issues arising out of the general definition of “Social Communication.”
The term “social communication” is used to refer to the transmission of content between sender and receiver, using the media and various forms of modern technology, and by means of agents unable to be quantified, in the social aspects of society.
It is a process and an action at the same time. That process-and-action therefore yields the effective flow of information, resulting in the enhancement of knowledge, for social communication participants.
That is to say, social communication aims in part, to sustain and develop knowledgeable beings.
Given the vital importance of the media to the four subject important areas, that is: the right to know, freedom of expression, access to information, and social communication; it follows therefore, that without a free or fully developed press and Information Communication Technology (ICT) configuration, citizens and visitors alike, are left starving for information and knowledge, and for freedom.
Thirty-four years after independence, Zimbabwe still lags behind badly, regionally and internationally; in the areas of media structure and infrastructure. That is particularly so in the broadcasting, and ICT sectors.
For example, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) continues today to monopolise the airwaves, as did the colonial regime’s Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation (RBC).
That monopolistic broadcasting configuration contrasts negatively with the situation prevailing in many other parts of Africa and beyond, where the “liberalisation of the airwaves” has been on the roll-out since the early 1990s.
While Zimbabwe’s mobile phone penetration and literacy rates (at about 106% and 91% respectively) are impressive; the quality, cost and speeds of internet and voice services remain disappointing, and out of sync with trends in most liberal jurisdictions.
And while Zimbabwe imposes today, punitive taxes on airtime purchases and mobile handsets importation, rates in other countries are tumbling. For US$1 a caller in the United States of America can make voice calls to any number on any network for the whole day, for as long as the call destination is within the States.
In Zimbabwe, a dollar will give you only a few minutes.
A whole range of functions on Blackberry, iPhone and other smart communication gadgets disappear once one lands at Harare/ Bulawayo International Airports, or on arrival at other Zimbabwean ports of entry; that being the result of poor ICT infrastructure.
The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), the statute that should enable citizens to access government-held information, and therefore to enhance the citizen’s opportunities for the enjoyment of the right to know remains ultra vires (that is, inconsistent with) the constitution on various levels, hence the degradation of: the right to know, freedom of expression, access to information, and social communication dimensions of Zimbabwe’s legislative and policy framework.
For as long as Aippa, the Official Secrets Act, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and other pieces of toxic legislation remain in force and effect — misaligned to the constitution; and for as long as policy inconsistencies in the areas under review persist, Zimbabwe will continue to wallow in poverty, particularly in the right to know, and social communications departments.
Why not act on that?
Chris Mhike is a lawyer practising in Harare. He writes here in his personal capacity