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Access to information guide

7 March 2005 Trying to get information from a government department or private company? Help is at hand, in the from of a user-friendly guide on how to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act, published in all 11 official languages by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). South Africa's Constitution gives every person the right of access to information, held by a public or private body, that is required for the exercise or protection of any right. The Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 gives effect to this right; now the SAHRC is helping to make the right a reality by offering citizens a simple, easily understandable guide to the law and how to use it. The guide tells the reader how to make a request for access to information, what assistance is available from the information officer of a public body, when access to information may legally be refused, and what legal remedies there are in cases where information is illegally withheld. The guide also lists public bodies from whom information can be requested, along with contact details of their information officers. According to Commission chairperson Jody Kollapen, contact details of private bodies have not been included in the first edition of the guide, due to the fact that some private bodies were temporarily exempted from publishing information manuals in terms of the Act. However, he said, an electronic version of the guide will be kept on the SAHRC website and updated monthly to keep the public abreast of developments and changes in the contact details of information officers of public bodies and general information on the Act. Building a culture of openness The Act represented a landmark in South African history, addressing for the first time the pre-1994 culture of secrecy in state and private institutions, seeking instead to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in South Africa. The Act also acknowledged the need to educate South Africans on their rights, to enable them to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. "Participation in democratic processes can only be effective if it is informed participation", SAHRC commissioner Leon Wessels says in the foreword to the guide. The responsibilities of public and private bodies should under the law "are not intended to be a costly burden but an essential mechanism to ensure good governance and the transformation of our society". The right of access to information should not be approached in an adversarial manner, Wessels says, but rather be used "as a vehicle to change our society". Law 'unique in the world' According to Commission chairperson Jody Kollapen, access to information regimes are fast gaining momentum around the world. "Countries such as Mexico, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, that previously did not have access to information legislation, now have such legislation", Kollapen writes in the preface to the guide. "Mexico ... adopted its Federal Transparency and Access to Public Government Information Law in 2002; Pakistan adopted its Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 in October 2002; while the United Kingdom approved its Freedom of Information Act 2000 in November 2000." South Africa's freedom of information legislation remains unique in the world, however, being the only such law that permits access to records held by private as well as public bodies. SouthAfrica.info reporter

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