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Information access is on the move in Africa. Let me paint you a picture. The person is fictitious, but the process isn’t.

Patience Ndlovu, a 24-year-old woman living in Soweto, South Africa, sends an SMS to a cell phone number she has scribbled on a scrap of paper.

Her text reads “L,” followed by her ID number, and the destination number for the message is 32551.

She got these details from a friend who in turn learned about it from a discarded newspaper that she picked up on a bus the week before.

The phone beeps. Ndlovu clicks a button to read the reply message. The SMS confirms her “Alive status verification.” Yep, she’s alive.

“One down,” she thinks with relief. “One more to go.”

This time she texts a different number. Seconds later, the response arrives. It’s bad news. From this SMS, she learns that she’s married.

What Ndlovu is doing is actually quite simple. She knows about identity theft, which is a problem in South Africa, and so she’s using an innovative service set up by the government. This service has made a database accessible via SMS. (That’s a good thing, because their website, which offers a similar service, was offline at the time of writing!)

Ndlovu is checking to see if she’s become a victim after pickpockets stole her identification papers four months earlier. By discovering she’s married, Ndlovu realizes that the thieves are using her information.

The man who has technically become her legal husband prefers to work in the shadows. He’s an illegal immigrant who needs a reason to avoid deportation. The identity thief is also someone who would agree with the definition of journalism attributed to Lord Northcliffe: “News is what somebody somewhere is trying to suppress.”

But the thief’s problem now is that ignorance no longer rests on the absence of journalism. Ndlovu can access a much wider flow of information, way beyond the news, using just her cell phone.

Ndlovu’s texts to check her status are not about information for its own sake. They are about defending her rights, and about her needing to keep government accountable for combating fraud.

Journalism may have sensitised Ndlovu to her identity rights, but a different information dispensation delivered her the necessary specifics. Her story highlights two points:

  • Practical access to information is often a precondition for the effective realization of rights to information.
  • Having access to information is also often not even a matter of asserting rights. There’s a lot of information that even closed governments are happy to release; it’s the dissemination mechanism that often falls short.

Information Access and Rights

This issue of “access” as a wider consideration to “rights” was a subterranean stream at a conference convened in Ghana this week by the Carter Center. The gathering was part of series of events convened by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to promote global transparency.

The limits of taking a narrow citizenship rights-only approach can be seen as follows:

So, even where law is a starting point, it’s not an end. It can help send out a public signal, but in some cases information can flow even without a law. For example, in Ghana mining companies are increasingly responding to public calls to reveal their contracts with land-holders.

In short, there’s a case for arguing that while “access to information” can encompass the “right to information,” the issue is a lot bigger than this. This suggests we need to move beyond the “usual suspects,” such as the media and pro-transparency NGOs who have an obvious interest in the cause of information freedom. This means spotting who has an interest in giving people practical access.

One option is with the IT and telecommunicartions industries. Generally speaking, these actors have a direct interest in heightening supply and increasing demand for information. They have an interest in getting governments to put data online becasue they can them help connect people to this data. This could help create a culture that values proliferation and pluralism.

Need for Media Literacy

Then again, it’s also worth remembering that information availability alone doesn’t necessarily translate into knowledgeable societies. Even the rights-rich and information-rich environments of the U.S. and U.K. did not prevent the governments from launching war on the basis of misinformation.

This observation points to the need to even go beyond linking the right to information to the issue of practical access. The point is that there also needs to be attention to media literacy.

As more and more information becomes available through advocacy, legal and cultural reform, and the use of Information and communication technologies, audiences will need to become more info-savvy. That’s the next step to further empower the Patience Ndlovu’s of the world.