By MISA Tanzania Correspondent |
A prevailing culture of secrecy among public officials in Tanzania at both central and local government levels is hindering the work of journalists, according to findings by a recent study. This is affecting access to information necessary for media reporting towards increased civic participation, transparency and accountability in governance.
The study which was conducted by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Tanzania Chapter in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) assessed the responsiveness of local government authorities (LGAs) and central government offices in Tanzania to citizens’ information requests.
The study found widespread laxity among officials in processing information requests, with many claiming to have misplaced or lost filed requests. “If you received someone’s documents, why would you say you can’t see them just a week later?” wondered Haika Kimaro, a newspaper correspondent in Mtwara town in the south-east of Tanzania. In the port town of Kigoma, Rhoda Ezekiel, a correspondent with Uhuru Newspaper, recounted how the secretary of the Ujiji Municipal Council once claimed to have misplaced her information request when she followed up on a query she had submitted.
Radio journalist George Binagi shared a similar experience from the town of Mwanza: “I submitted my questions in writing to the Regional Commissioner’s Office. I went back 10 days later and did not get the answers. They looked for my letter and [claimed they] never saw it.”
But it is not only the media affected by limited access to public information. Researchers are affected too. During the study, Jacqueline Jones, a mass communication graduate and intern at MISA Tanzania, went to the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner’s office posing as a student researcher. She requested for information pertaining to the office’s functions, ongoing projects, income and expenditure. However, she was turned away for lack of an introduction letter from a university, with officials claiming that work procedures do not allow them to disclose information without such a letter.
“Their customer service is awful and the people at the registry department were quite harsh and rude. One of them actually shouted at me for insisting on getting my answers in a written form,” said Jones.
She submitted a similar request to the Dar es Salaam City Council, which, according to the city’s Information Officer needed approval by at least four different Heads of Sections. The Information Officer provided her with the requested information upon receipt of the approvals.
Alternative platforms for accessing information offered their own challenges. According to Zulfa Musa, a Mwananchi Newspaper correspondent in Arusha, administrative assistants manage the City Council offices’ telephone numbers and getting in touch with the Director or his Secretary to request for information required one to have these officials’ personal phone numbers. It was difficult to make information requests as the administrators were reluctant to provide the personal contact information of the Director or his secretary.
The frustrations faced by the journalists who took part in the study indicates that it is likely that citizens face similar or worse challenges.
It is widely recognised that access to quality and timely information for citizens is crucial in facilitating informed dialogue, monitoring and evaluation of development issues at the local level, thereby accountable governance and improved public services delivery.
Gasirigwa Sengiyumwa, the National Director for MISA Tanzania, stated that whereas an Access to Information Act was passed in 2016, “it appears that both public servants and the general public remain unaware of this Law.” He added: “There is a need for sensitisation about the law through training workshops for both parties [public officials and citizens] to ensure that the rights and responsibilities provided for under the law are realised.”
The study was conducted as part of the ICT4Democracy in East Africa initiative’s objective to document and publicise the utility and effectives of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for government-citizen interaction, proactive information disclosure, and responsiveness to information requests, for the realisation of the right of access to information.
Seven out of Tanzania’s 28 regions were covered in the study, with a total of 28 information requests filed to 14 institutions during March and April 2017. The written requests were emailed as well as hand-delivered to the institutions. Follow ups on approval or denial of requests was conducted through phone calls and physical visits.
Read the full study at here.