On 27 September 2019, the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria (UP), collaborated with the South African Information Regulator, South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), UNESCO, Media Monitoring Africa, African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE), UP and other stakeholders in commemorating International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). IDUAI is celebrated on annually on 28 September and the commemorations focused on the right of access to information in relation to digital equality and universal access to the internet.
Professor Bongani Christopher Majola, Chairperson of the SAHRC, underscored the importance of access to information for the realisation of other rights. He added that South Africa cannot ensure readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and the right of access to information cannot be meaningfully realised, without access to the internet. He called on the government to actively implement and monitor its commitments regarding ICT capabilities and internet access to reduce the already apparent digital divide in South Africa. Many South Africans, especially those in rural areas, lack access to infrastructure to devices and the internet. He expressed confidence that whilst South Africa prepares for the 4IR, the Information Regulator, once fully operational, will be able to strike a balance between access to information and privacy rights in the information society. He lamented general non-compliance with the obligation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, particularly with section 32. The SAHRC is expected to report to parliament on the public body’s compliance with PAIA but compliance remains low.
The Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams spoke mostly on the 4IR and cautioned on the dangers of internet for users that are not adequately informed. She also emphasised the importance of cybercrime and cyber awareness. She also called for the use of indigenous languages on online platforms.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute presented the keynote speech. He underscored the importance of access to information in transparency and good governance. He explained that the African Commission has interpreted the African Charter’s provisions on freedom of information and elaborated on the normative framework through the adoption of soft law instruments such and the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa, the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa, and the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression (currently undergoing revision). He called on African states to enact laws that do not undermine principles that have been established under international law. These instruments embody access to information principles. He also mentioned that new digital technologies contribute to the realisation to freedom of expression and the right of access to information. He indicated that the draft Declaration affirms that the rights that people have offline should be protected online, using the same standards. Regarding access to the internet, he made reference to issues such as affordability and digital literacy. Commissioner Mute also raised the issue of exclusive access to the internet in Africa on account of state actions and state actors. Such actions, such as tax regimes imposed on social media, undermine access to information on the internet and affect the most vulnerable in society.
During the commemorations, the report on the seven-point plan on Universal Free Access to the Internet and Free Public Access in South Africa was also presented. The report was compiled by the Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), the Interactive Advertising Bureau SA (IAB SA), and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). The Centre for Human Rights and the African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics at UP endorsed the report. This was through the realisation that access to the internet is important and facilitates the realisation and enjoyment of other rights, such as the right of access to information. This plan on achieving universal access to the internet and free public access in South Africa. entails:
- free public access to the internet at government sites,
- zero-rated access to government websites and data ,
- free public wi-fi,
- the provision of free basic internet as a municipal service,
- digital literacy programmes,
- minimum protections in the provision of free access to the internet and
- oversight and monitoring of the progressive realisation of free access to the internet.
Hlengiwe Dube from the Centre for Human Rights highlighted the Centre’s contribution to the realisation of the right of access to information through supporting the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. This include the ongoing revision of the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa. She pointed out the negative developments in other parts of Africa that undermine the right of access to information such as internet shutdowns and closure of websites, particularly during demonstrations and elections.
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