July 7, 2023
Compiled by Batanai Mutasa
The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) has underscored the role access to information plays in enhancing the quality of reporting on issues in the extractives and mining industries.
To this end, ZELA conducted training and sensitization for 15 young journalists on access to information as a key tenet and inescapable tool for public accountability in the provision of social and economic development. The journalists were drawn from public and private media houses and represented both mainstream and alternative media platforms.
The training was in response to an identified gap in the understanding of concepts, processes, and legal guidelines for achieving access to information in the public interest. It aimed at enhancing the skills and knowledge of journalists on the use of access to information laws for investigative journalism and the promotion of responsible exploration of natural resources to ensure a balance between economic development and the extraction of minerals. Journalists were also implored to use information to educate and inform the public on mining contracts and mining activities, highlight benefits, and expose anomalies in the industry.
“Journalists have an important role to play in unpacking important issues in the extractives industry because there are always winners and losers in this sector,” said Africa Institute for Environmental Law Coordinator (AIEL) Farayi Mutondoro, who urged the media to play its watchdog role with all contracts between mining companies and the government because corporations sometimes prioritize profits at the expense of host communities’ rights.
Mutondoro urged journalists to be creative and tech-savvy to ensure that they mine helpful information about transactions in the extractive industry. He said at times there is a need to follow global developments in the information landscape, giving the Panama Papers as an example. Journalists can also learn some of the most effective ways to expose huge leakages in the mining value chain.
The session by Mutondoro gave practical insights into the processes of accessing information, which combined well with an earlier presentation by ZELA Investments Fellow Obert Bore, who led discussions on the legal framework on access to information in Zimbabwe, focusing on the Constitution and freedom of Information.
Bore advised the journalists that they have the right to access information in the interests of public accountability and for the exercise or protection of a right. He said public bodies held information as custodians of public goods, and everyone has a right to access that information. Similarly, he advised the scribes that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens at the relevant level, stating that at the national level, everyone has appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities.
The general route to access such information was explained thus:
- Apply in writing to the Information officer.
- Wait for at least 21 days to determine whether access has been granted or denied, but this may be extended by 14 days.
- Deemed refusal
- Reasons for refusal
- Right of appeal to the Zimbabwe Media Commission (denial or delays)
- Payment of a fee for making copies where necessary
However, he also gave exemptions to the liberties of access to information, which include deliberations or functions of the Cabinet and its committees; information protected from disclosure in victim-friendly courts; trade secrets of a third party; or financial, commercial, scientific, or technical information that is proprietary to a third party and the disclosure of which would be likely to cause harm to the commercial or financial interests of that third party, among other specific conditions.
Bore also shared lessons from ZELA on accessing information from government departments after the organization followed due process to request information from the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency (ZIDA) and Environmental Management Agency (EMA).
In addition, the training gave the journalists examples of information mined in the extractives and mining sectors that they could use for groundbreaking public-interest news articles. Findings from case studies on contract performance in Kamativi, Manhize, and Sabi Star mining activities were presented by Bore and ZELA Responsible Business and Investments Program Lead, Josephine Chiname.
The training also discussed Special Economic Zones in Zimbabwe, led by Dr. Prolific Mataruse, who gave an assessment of Special Economic Zones in the country and focused on the costs, benefits, and risks of the concept.
In addition, the training included a gender dimension to news reportage in the extractives and mining sectors, with gender consultant Dorothy Hove providing insights into the gender and extractive governance dimensions of the extractive sector with a focus on how resource contract transparency can support gender goals.
After an information-packed two-day activity coupled with group deliberations and presentations by the journalists, the media professionals expressed insight on the added responsibility that reporters with an environmental focus had to society.
“We cannot afford to sit back and wait for information to be presented to us because there is a lot that goes on under the surface in extractives and mining. It is befitting that a journalist must probe for information to effectively report on the mining industry. The same applies to all natural resources,” said Vincent Mhene, one of the journalists in attendance.