Obstructed; Why Uganda’s Access to Information law is failing to empower citizens
A number of human rights activists congregated recently to share views about the implementation of the Access to Information Act, with many of them expressing frustrations about Uganda’s failure to realize the benefits of the law whose passing 15 years ago was touted as a game changer in Uganda’s democratization process.
The reflection on this vital right comes as Uganda joined the rest of the world on September 28, to mark the International Day for Universal access to information that was proclaimed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2019.
This year’s theme of ‘Building Back Better’ With Access to Information’, borrows from the slogan by US President Joe Biden’s administration of ‘Building Back Better’; by emphasizing the importance of building stronger institutions for sustainable development and to uphold the vision of information as a public good.
Whereas millions of people depend on good journalism to access information in order for them to get services, a 2019 study by the Africa Freedom of Information Center indicates that millions of Ugandans still do not get the right information.
Uganda was among the first African countries to enact An Access to Information law. the Access to Information Act (ATIA 2005) and subsequent access to information guidelines 2011, were hailed as a watershed moment for the democratization process for Uganda by empowering ordinary citizens to effectively participate in decisions that affect them by the sheer fact that they are armed with information.
Gilbert Sendugwa, the Executive Director Africa Freedom for Information Center argues that the law is a vital tool in empowering citizens to monitor government commitments and service delivery.
“The objective of this law is to promote citizens’ capacity to participate in holding their leaders accountable and promote transparency,” says Sendugwa.
“When people have information it will also help government in a way that, people are going to accept and understand that for example the vaccine is safe, free, and effective and therefore address the doubts that people have which have prevented them from vaccinating. Vaccines are not cheap so when government provides vaccines, people should use them but because of lack of information people have doubts which have not been cleared,” Sendugwa notes.
Although the law grants every citizen the right of access to information and records in the possession of the State or any public body, proponents of this right argue that there has not been any significant increase in access to information as a result of the enactment of the legal provision.
Sendugwa for example argues that blanket caveats such as those that prohibit access to information that is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State, can be abused to deny people access to vital information since security of the state can sometimes be vaguely defined.
He also cited other archaic laws such as the Official Secrets Act, Oath of Allegiance, which he says contradict the spirit of the Access to Information provisions hence leaving most Ugandans unable to to access information from government offices when they need it.
Sendugwa observed that as Uganda joined the international community to commemorate the Access to Information Day, governments, especially in Africa should prioritize people’s access to information, adding that the more people enjoy greater access to information, the more they will trust in the decisions and programmes enacted and implemented by the leaders.
Despite the presence of a law, Sendugwa laments that government continues to show ambivalence to the successful implemention of this good law and hence push for the public’s realization of their rights.
“The practices we see from our research is that most information requests are not answered, most information requests are rejected, most are what we call mute refusals; whereby an agency just keeps quiet yet this information is very important,” Sendugwa explains.
Other experts note that the financial and bureaucratic red tape associated with accessing information in the hands of government officials, have proved a huge obstacle.
According to Sendugwa, some people want the information for business decisions while others want to compare government services offered in their communities. For instance where the government says billions of shillings were spent on a road but they do not see the billions of money on the ground.
People want to use the information to verify and confirm that what the government has paid for, is actually what people receive whether it’s schools, health facilities, roads or agricultural services.
Sharing his experience, Eron Kiiza, one of the lawyers at the forefront of the Save Bugoma Forest campaign, reveals that the group had to pay over UGX 600,000 in order to access the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regarding the Investment project given the Bugoma Forest land.
Kiiza says that the experience relating to access to information in the possession of government agencies vary, depending on the attitude of the specific agency, its efficiency, character and the sensitivity of the information someone is seeking.
He explains that it is possible to write a letter and follow it up and get the information you are seeking, you may get the information after 3 weeks if the agency is cooperative or not if the agency is not cooperative.
“National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) under the former ED Tom Okurut was very uncooperative in regards to releasing information on Bugoma Forest and we had to go to court. We wanted an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Report for Bugoma Forest land and we couldn’t have it easily. We had to pay money on 3 occasions, we had to frequent their offices, they had to make our people wait for long hours, …… and finally we got the information but after a lot of inconvenience and long waiting, “ Kiiza narrates.
However Kiiza commends Uganda Wildlife Authority and National Forestry Authority for their cooperation that enabled them to get the information asked for.
Susan Juliet Agwang, a legal and Research Officer at the African Freedom Information Center is also disappointed by some government agencies whom she says make it so hard to access the requested information.
The law provides for payment of an access fee of UGX20,000 shillings but activists say that the costs should not hinder the proper dissemination and access to information arguing that if the cost to access information is so high.
“Imagine charging 20,000 shillings for a citizen to access information yet there are some people who can’t raise 1000 shillings to feed their families, the access fee should be at the bare minimum,” says Agwang.
Reliving her experience on access to information, Agwang narrates that: “We (Africa Freedom Center for Information) filed a request for information from the National Medical stores in 2020 but the response that we got was an outline of where the information was, how difficult to get it and then asking us to pay UGX10 million to access the piece of information. That was exorbitant and it beats the whole purpose for citizens to aces information.”
Despite these frustrations, the State Minister for Information and National guidance Godfrey Kabbyanga Baluku assured the country that the government is committed to ensure all its departments, ministries and agencies share relevant information according to the provisions of the Law.
“If you can’t get the inform from other government ministries and agencies, appeal to the Information and National Guidance ministry through the Permanent secretary, we as the responsible ministry we shall look for that information and give it to you, this is a new dawn….”-Kabbyanga
Kabbyanga pledges that the ministry is going to talk to the government entities to find out why they have to charge a lot of money, yet the law is very clear that the charge shouldn’t be beyond 1 currency point (20 000) shillings for any information someone needs.
“The law is also very clear that information of public interest should never be charged, not even photocopying, because these ministries and departments and agencies have photocopiers, so why should they charge you for photocopying” says Kabbyanga .
Findings by Africa Freedom for Information Center also reveal that media practitioners have not requested for key information from government departments as expected.
Alex Atuhaire from the Editor’s Guild explains why most journalists have not utilized the access to information law.
“The problem is the attitude; it is negative on both sides. If a journalist is asking for information from the Ministry of Defense, already they go with a defeatist attitude of saying may be they will not release the information, so you have journalists who have not tested the processes and on the other hand the Ministry officials may also not have trust in the journalist requesting for the information,” Atuhaire adds.
Bugweri County MP Abdu Katuntu, who beat the path in this arena when he presented a Private Members Bill that was later enacted into the Access to Information law ATIA 2005, has challenged the public especially journalists to test the Access to Information law by requesting for the information in government custody.
“Let somebody try to use that law to access information in accordance with the Constitution…if you can’t access it then you can go to court and force that particular officer authorized to give you information …so the best thing I have done for this country was coming up with this law, and I thought the public especially the journalists would be using it to get access to any information within the hands of the state. In most cases journalists do not do it, what they usually do, is they just go and sometimes write without getting the authentic information from government department yet the law allows them to,” Katuntu said.