Treasure trove of info

2014-11-12 00:00

MY heart was warmed on Monday as I read our report about Jane Harley, a civic-minded Maritzburg local who has done what I wish more citizens would do.

Harley has taken up the cause of getting to the truth behind the deaths of eight recruits at the infamous RTI fitness test in December 2012, at which 40 000 people arrived for the chance to secure one of 90 jobs.

She has turned to the Promotion of Access to Information Act to request records relating to the commission of inquiry which was appointed into the affair. She has managed to obtain records showing the astonishing costs of the commission, which appear now to dwarf any potential compensation to be paid to the families of the dead applicants.

She has also managed to obtain documents which give far more insight into the commission’s deliberations and conclusions than what was disclosed in the summarised version that was released by the premier.

We often read about access to information law in the context of journalists using it — even though we don’t use it nearly enough in my view — and very seldom hear of citizens using the law.

This is a hobby of mine and in my last job at Media24 Investigations we were aggressive access-to-information activists. We secured records on a variety of subjects, from MECs’ official credit-card expense claims (a case settled on the steps of the high court in Johannesburg when they folded and gave us the information after resisting for months), to the salaries of senior public servants, to medico-legal claims against the Gauteng Health Department which led to a major national exposé.

Early last year, I was invited to Stockholm under the auspices of the International School for Transparency, to study Sweden’s access to information culture. The experience blew my mind.

Sweden has the world’s oldest regime of access to information, dating back to 1776’s Freedom of the Press Act.

There, any citizen can simply walk into any state entity and demand access to almost any record. There are no forms to fill in or fees to be paid and the response is almost immediate.

We tested this openness on our visit to Sweden’s environmental protection agency. After being addressed by an agency lawyer, we returned to the reception and said we would like the salary records and details of the official who had just spoken to us. The receptionist did not bat an eyelid and 15 minutes later we left with printouts.

By way of contrast, the South African Defence department refused our access to information request for the department’s director-general’s salary, claiming national security considerations.

Our access to information law is far from perfect, but it can work. I have used it as an ordinary citizen, for example, to demand from Telkom all the records relating to my telephone line.

We had experienced endless outages and I was convinced they were not repairing the line when they said they were, so I asked for the records and I got them.

In Cape Town, I filed a request for city health inspection records for restaurants in the area in which I was living. I wanted to see how they were being inspected and which were fit for my custom. I got those records too.

Our access to information law is not difficult to use.

You complete a simple two-page form outlining the records you are targeting and send it with a small fee to the state entity’s information or deputy information officer.

All state entities are required to make available an access to information manual, which provides all the details you would need to file a request.

Your request must be processed within 30 days (although an extension of an additional 30 days can be requested by the entity). There are appeal processes on requests being denied and so on.

Google “justice department PAIA” and you will find an excellent guide to using the law, along with the forms you need on the Justice department’s website.

It’s a bit like a treasure hunt as you dispatch requests and then wait to see what comes your way. It’s a thrill when the records start pouring in.

If readers are interested in knowing more about how to use this law, drop me a note and if there’s enough interest I’ll look at organising a workshop with an expert for you.

Meanwhile, Harley wants to take her fight to get access to additional records relating to the RTI case to court.

I’m sure there must be an attorney in KwaZulu-Natal who would take this case on a pro bono basis.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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