HomeAnalysisEditor's Memo: Zupco bus deal: Victory for media freedom

Editor’s Memo: Zupco bus deal: Victory for media freedom

Faith Zaba
THIS week we are over the moon!

We are excited as the Zimbabwe Independent after winning a landmark ruling against government ministers who have been concealing critical information related to procurement of Zupco buses by Landela Investments (Pvt) Ltd.

The High Court this week set a new precedent.

The court ordered ministers July Moyo of Local Government and Public Works and his counterpart in Finance and Economic Development ministry Mthuli Ncube to release information pertaining to the procurement of the 64-seater buses. The officials were given seven days to explain in writing reasons for failing to answer questions posed by the Independent.

July Moyo of Local Government and Public Works

Last year, the Independent, working with Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ), wrote to Zupco, three ministers, namely of Local Government and Public Works, Finance and Economic Development and Transport and Infrastructural Development compelling them to divulge details about the transaction.

This was after several attempts to obtain information were frustrated as the ministers ducked questions. Through our lawyers, Atherstone and Cook, we made demands from the ministers for the Zupco transaction details.

We demanded access to company files at the Registrar of Companies.

We did all this as we sought to enhance transparency and good corporate governance. But alas, the level of secrecy in government is astounding.

But in his judgement, High Court Judge Justice Joseph Mafusire had no kind words for the ministers whose arguments were described as “long technical objections short of facts”.

Mafusire laid into the ministries for suggesting that we were supplied with all the information yet that never happened.

“The factual position is clearly one not to detain the court. The respondents have not produced anything to support the claim that they responded to the applicant’s request, even via the press, notwithstanding that this would not be in compliance with the legislation,” he states in the ruling.

Mthuli Ncube

The ministers, Mafusire said, did not comply with the law as administrative authorities. They also did not comply with the duty imposed upon them where a request for information such as the one we made is concerned, according to the judge. For failing to divulge the information, Mafusire added, the ministers are now compelled to supply their written reasons.

“There can be nothing standing in the way of the very limited relief sought by the applicants, save the question of costs which are sought on an attorney and client scale. Nothing has been shown to warrant such a penal order of costs. In the circumstance, the application is granted in terms of the draft order as amended,” Mafusire ruled.

“Within seven days of the date of this order, the first and second respondents shall supply the first applicant, through its legal practitioners Atherstone and Cook, with the written reasons for their refusal to provide the information sought by the applicants Zimind Publishers and Transparency International Zimbabwe…”

The ruling is a major development in the fight for access to information and media freedom.

The ruling is an important reminder to government why it is important to ensure that the country upholds the constitutional principles of governmental transparency and accountability. Access to information is a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. It should therefore be respected. That’s what constitutionalism is all about, anyway.

Section 62 of the Constitution provides for access to information as a right. The Freedom of Information Act provides for the same right. Hence, information in public offices must not be kept in secrecy, especially where taxpayers’ money is involved.

Access to information is one of the key pillars of a functional democracy. It’s critical in the anti-corruption fight.

The Independent and TIZ’s failed efforts to obtain details on the Landela Investments and Zupco deal and most recently a similar thing happened on the new housing loan scheme for ministers. This shows that access to information in Zimbabwe remains a challenge despite the guarantees in the Constitution.

Access to information is an essential tool in the fight against corruption as it enables citizens to hold elected representatives and stewards of public funds accountable. Thus, the High Court ruling is a major milestone.

Now we await the ministers’ response. If they don’t comply, they will be in contempt of court and due legal processes will be exhausted.

The ruling sets a good precedent. It reminds the state of its responsibility to promote and respect the right to access to information, particularly where public resources are being utilised.

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