Unlock the doors: How greater transparency by public and private bodies can improve the realisation of environmental rights
11 April 2012 at 6:53 am
This week, the Centre for Environmental Rights is releasing a new report on the state of civil society’s ability to access environmental information held by public and private bodies. The report, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, is entitled Unlock the doors: How greater transparency by public and private bodies can improve the realisation of environmental rights.
The realisation of the Constitutional right to a healthy environment is dependent on the ability of individuals, communities, civil society organisations, companies and decision-makers to access information about the state of the environment and the impact of human activities.
In July 2010, the CER, with the support of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, began investigating and assessing the extent to which information about environmental decision-making and impacts was accessible to communities and civil society organisations. While we anticipated some difficulty in obtaining certain types of environmental information, we could not have predicted the astonishing results of this project: with a few notable exceptions, both public and private bodies failed to give access to even the most basic environmental information, in violation of their obligations under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 and the principles of environmental governance set out in the National Environmental Management Act, 1998.
The CER’s Unlock the Doors report is an analysis of over 100 PAIA requests and 42 formal requests for information made to 17 public and 35 private bodies. The report also analyses and describes the hundreds of phone calls made and emails sent following up on requests for information, and the matters that eventually ended up in applications to the High Court. This analysis reveals a number of significant problems for accessing environmental information and obstacles to compliance with PAIA by both public and private bodies:
- PAIA has effectively become a tool used by some public bodies to avoid formal and informal feedback to civil society on basic governance, and little thought is given to what information should be publicly and easily available as a matter of course and without any formal requests.
- Officials administering requests for information are unfamiliar with PAIA, and its provisions are poorly used and poorly understood.
- Ignoring PAIA requests and deadlines appears to be the default approach of a number of public and private bodies.
- Internal appeals are not properly considered (and are often ignored) by public bodies and there is no appeal mechanism for private bodies. As a result, even the most basic information is often only accessible by instituting expensive court proceedings.
- With a few exceptions, the approach encountered to giving civil society access to information required for the exercise of their environmental rights can only be described as suspicious and fearful.
Both public and private bodies need to give proper consideration to the significant expansion of records made available voluntarily, particularly licences, authorisations and enforceable licence conditions. This will both significantly reduce the administrative burden on these bodies, and will demonstrate a commitment to public accountability and transparency.
In 2012, CER will continue its assessment of civil society access to environmental information, take legal action where required to compel production of records, and continue its engagement with public and private bodies regarding incentives for voluntary disclosure.