By extension therefore, access to information and the media can play a role in the improvement of service delivery, in the respect of human rights, and in the recognition of the needs of the people in policy formulation and governance. Access to information and the media is thus an important part of development.
In Zimbabwe however, citizens do not have access to adequate information to base decisions on and are therefore not empowered to take charge of their destinies by participating in the critical discourses shaping policy formulation, service delivery principles and governance priorities. Expansion in the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) has however provided an opportunity for the government to increase the amount of information Zimbabweans have access to and to generate discourse between the public and those who govern them.
One of the greatest challenges that Zimbabwe faces in governance is the lack of engagement and communication between holders of public office and their constituents. This is fundamentally a problem for two reasons. Firstly there is lack of transparency and accountability in the operations of public officials meaning that they have the leeway to prioritize their own interests at the expense of those of the citizens.
Secondly, lack of engagement leads to the formulation of policies, and the implementation of projects that may not augur well with citizens and are thus rejected leading to wastage of taxpayers’ money and stunted developmental growth. Unfortunately, the culture in Zimbabwe has never been one for affording citizens access to information or promotion of engagement, accountability and transparency. Instead, operations of holders of public office are a mystery to the public, with regular allegations of corruption emerging.
The media are also viewed with suspicion, with officials wary of them and reluctant to give interviews. Worse still, the country’s laws, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), certain sections the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, the contempt of court law, defamation law, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) make operating in the country difficult for media practitioners. In addition to these laws, journalists normally face harassment by state security agents and get arrested for merely doing their jobs.
Due to this journalists engage in self – censorship, in the process denying people relevant information to base decisions on. On the other hand, Zimbabwe’s unstable economy has resulted in a huge digital divide with large sections of the population unable to purchase newspapers or access other forms of information. Zimbabweans therefore lack adequate information on critical issues, thus citizen agency and developmental democracy remain elusive.
The rise in the use of the internet and other New Information Communication Technologies (NICTs) in the country in the past year has provided an opportunity for increasing conversation between governors and the governed. Mobile penetration in Zimbabwe now stands at approximately 65 percent, while use of the internet has also increased considerably following rapid expansion in the sector since 2009, coupled with the introduction of third generation internet technology.
In urban areas, it is estimated that every household has at least four mobile phones. In addition, use of smart phones, whose functions include internet, multi-media services and cameras has increased, especially among the youth. This is providing new avenues for communication between holders of public office and the public.
The global community recognises the importance of ICTs in the maintenance of democracy and in sustainable development. In September 2003, representatives of countries from all across the globe met in Geneva for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) where the WSIS declaration of principles was passed.
The summit declared a “desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
A commitment was also made to use ICTs to contribute to the attainment of the Millennium Developmental Goals (MDGs), namely the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary education; promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women; reduction of child mortality; improvement of maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and development of global partnerships for development for the attainment of a more peaceful, just and prosperous world.
The World Bank defines e-governance as the “government owned or operated systems of information and communication technologies that transform relations with citizens, the private sector and/or other government agencies so as to promote citizens empowerment, improve service delivery, strengthen accountability, increase transparency, or improve government efficiency.”
E-governance is also defined as “public sector’s use of the most innovative information and communications technologies, like the internet, to deliver to all citizens improved services, reliable information and greater knowledge in order to facilitate access to the governing process and encourage deeper citizen participation. E – governance therefore notes that ICTs can be used to increase communication and dialogue between public officials and residents, and therefore increase citizen agency.
The onus is on the government and local authorities to use e-governance concepts as a means to increase communication between themselves and the public in order to increase accountability and transparency in their operations. Admittedly, e-governance is a broad concept, and requires investments in capacity building not only for holders of public office, but for citizens as well.
Using websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter for example, government departments, ministries, councillors and departments in local authorities could increase the amount of information the public has on government projects, activities and policies. The interactive nature of these communication tools would also provide the public with platforms to inform public officials of their needs and priorities.
While e-governance is a broad concept including the computerisation of government transactions and communications among government departments, it is the e-democracy part – that concerned with improving engagement, transparency and accountability in governance – that has an immediate appeal.
This is not to say other concepts of e-governance should be left out. The government should come up with a holistic e-governance programme in order for Zimbabweans to be able to enjoy the full benefits of the information society. By doing so, the government would be making a commitment to developmental democracy – increasing citizens participation in governance, engagement and citizen agency leading to better service delivery and accountability and transparency in governance.
Zibusiso Dube is the Information Manager at Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA). He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on [email protected]Post published in: Opinions & Analysis