amaBhungane
amaBhungane

Eish and goodbye: the pains of information-seeking

By Glenda Daniels

Sorry, in advance, to the politically correct who support sex work and to dentists who love their jobs. But in my subjective mind, while there are many torturous jobs, these two spring to mind first: selling sex to strangers and drilling into someone’s mouth. Right up there, however, has to be an aspect of my job as advocacy co-ordinator: that of “information officer”, which I performed since January 2011 at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane).

This performance entailed making requests for information – without much success – and filling out official forms to request information from public and private bodies in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) of 2000. This Act is what the government and supporters of the secrecy Bill have been waving in our faces. In other words, the secrecy Bill balances out Paia. So, if something is classified in terms of the secrecy Bill, no problem, you can always apply, using Paia, to request the very same info get declassified. Do you sniff cumbersome and burdensome?

Alas, the present reality of Paia is already a hoot, without the secrecy Bill being passed.

In the execution of my tasks as information officer, I have ground my teeth in frustration and have had three migraines in one year, as opposed to my usual, only one. I blame Paia. It takes a very special person to do Paia requests. Someone who is patient, gentle and kind, and who doesn’t mind phoning the same person weekly, with the same conversation: “Hello, how are you, where is the information you promised to send me last week?” Then that person says to you: “Gosh, didn’t you get it?” And you go: “Gosh, no, when did you send it?” But you know the cheque is not in the post. In fact, it hasn’t gotten anywhere close to being posted.

An inordinate amount of time is spent trying to get information. I have had about a 10% success rate. To get what you need, you have to fill out a form, but there is a process and challenges to face before you send the form.

First, many people in public and private bodies seem not to know of Paia. I don’t know if they are pretending blissful ignorance. Second, they give you a name and you fill out the form and with some satisfaction and press the send button. Third, you then get a call to say that was not the correct person to deal with. So you start the process all over again. Fourth, you email, fax, and post to ensure that at least through one method the request falls onto the right lap. And then telephone to confirm receipt of the request.

To begin to describe the frustration you feel when you hear that the request was not received is beyond the power of words to describe. I grind my teeth, get a tense neck and worry about a migraine coming on, and I start again. Fax. Email. Post. Telephone. “How are you? When can I expect…?”

Our kind receptionist, Thuli, has witnessed my trying to send the same fax over and over again. She has often offered to help fax for me. Sometimes, she has discovered that I was given the wrong number.

Back to the process. It goes like this: an investigator needs information. You have to find out who the right person is to send the information to. You often get it wrong, or sometimes the wrong name is given to you, maybe in ignorance, maybe deliberately. There is no way of knowing for sure. Then, you fill out the forms. You follow up. You send again. The request is refused. You lodge an internal appeal. But you get the run-around first, to find out who you lodge the internal appeal with. When all fails you go to court. We haven’t done that in the past year.

So what is the point I’m trying to make? Paia is slow and cumbersome. The turnaround time for receiving an acknowledgement of a request is long. The turnaround time for receiving the information is, mostly, never. Imagine what will happen if the secrecy Bill is passed in its current form – the “new” deadline for the Bill is May 17.

The M&G‘s amaBhungane investigators have heard me on the other end of the telephone, pretending to be patient and polite, and have been quite sympathetic. They have also heard me lose my temper, after I’ve put the phone down, and curse about the obstreperous nature of the other side or of having quit the smoking habit maybe a bit prematurely.

These requests for information are not just about exercising our constitutional rights to information. Investigations need information, full stop. Journalists cannot do their jobs without authentic information, as in documentation, be these from deeds offices, court records, or local government or private sector vaults.

I leave to take up a research position at Wits Journalism School on the state of the media in South Africa. I will also be involved in putting the finishing touches to my book, The Fight for Democracy: The ANC and media in South Africa. It is published by Wits University Press and will be out later this year. I say goodbye to my advocacy co-ordinator job on April 30 with mixed feelings. After all, there were a few great aspects: I was back at the M&G where I started my career as a journalist more than two decades ago (I love this paper, it definitely showcases the best journalism, especially investigations and analyses, in the country); I enjoyed writing comment pieces on the secrecy Bill; and finally, my engagement in media freedom and access to information activism was great.

As for Paia and the information officer performance, say no more. Maybe except for just one word: Eish.

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