Editorial: Government must rewrite the Official Secrets Act

The Freedom of Information Bill, which is currently at the Cabinet level awaiting approval, is a piece of legislation that is coming a bit too late – but better late than never.

Even then, the fact that it was formulated at least two years ago but has not seen the floor of the august House yet is an indication that there might have been some powerful elements who are uncomfortable with it.

And this would not be very surprising given the fact that the media has at times sneaked into the nooks and crannies of the State and exposed to the public some malpractices it would have wished remained unknown.

Other countries, including Uganda and South Africa, have already put in place such freedom of information laws and citizens can enjoy greater access to information.

However, it needs to be understood that besides enacting this Bill into law, the Official Secrets Act needs to be rewritten because it could still pose a threat to access to information if it remains intact. This is to make it to be in tune with the spirit and substance of the new Bill.

In fact, even such laws as criminal libel need to looked at again as they still pose a threat to the freedom of the Press and, more generally, the extent to which individuals can freely access information in possession of the government.

The point is that the Freedom of Information Bill should not be passed in isolation from other parts of the law that relate to easing access to information.

In fact, it has even been shown that having the Freedom of Information law does not mean that other laws that relate to information access have to be removed altogether.

Experience in other countries has shown that what needs to be done is to ensure that the other laws are rewritten and the spirit changed such that what is allowed under one law is not prohibited in another part of the law since that opens loopholes to ambiguity.

It is such ambiguities that a capricious legal machinery will take advantage of when under pressure from politicians and other powerful sections of the society. And this is bound to happen whenever there are conflicts in society.

It is after passing the Freedom of Information Bill that the country shall then be able to progress towards enacting the Data Protection Bill – which is intended to guarantee the safety of data provided to such groups as business process outsourcing operators. This is in the sense, for example, in which credit information is not leaked to third parties.

At the same time, the increasing digitisation of society and information networks calls for the need to safeguard private information relayed through the networks and into the hands of private companies and other entities.