Culture of Secrecy Blots 12 Years of Information Law Top story

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In short
Journalists and researchers in Uganda still struggle to access information from government officials, 12 years after the law on access to information was enacted. In 2005, Parliament passed the Access to Information Act, thereby operationalising, at least in principle, Article 41 of the Constitution which provides for the right of every citizen of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State.

Journalists and researchers in Uganda still struggle to access information from government officials, 12 years after the law on access to information was enacted.
 
In 2005, Parliament passed the Access to Information Act, thereby operationalizing, at least in principle, Article 41 (1) of the Constitution which provides for the right of every citizen of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State.
 
Twelve years later, however, the impact of the law enacted to also promote an efficient, effective, transparent and accountable Government, and thereby enable the public to effectively access information and participate in decisions that affect them, is hardly felt.
 
Uganda was among the first African countries to enact a right to information law, but it would take the country six years to put in place regulations to operationalize the Act. The Access to Information Regulations, 2011 were, ironically, passed in secret, too much for a piece of legislation put in place to promote an efficient, effective, transparent and accountable government.
   
Despite the government efforts to promote this law, access to vital information by citizens remains a big challenge. The law faces wide exemptions to access information including noncompliance by ministers and government officials, ignorance of the law and its relevance, bureaucracy, tedious complaints mechanism as well as limited scope of bodies obligated to give information.
 
Moses Talemwa, an editor at The Observer newspaper, says while the law aids information access to journalists, the challenge remains when government officials decline to give information on certain subjects.
 
Talemwa says it is hard for him to get information as government officials tend to play it safe.
 
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Talemwa, however, says there is a crop of new journalists who do not know how and where to get information from. He blames individual journalists on failure to access certain information.
 
He acknowledges, however, that there is information on issues such as fraud and financial transactions that government officials will decline to give once requested.
 
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In 2009 journalists Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi and Angelo Izama took the government to court, seeking disclosure of information regarding oil production agreements. This was in a bid to empower the public to participate in the government decisions on the use of petroleum resources discovered in Uganda.
 
The Chief Magistrate's Court at Nakawa dismissed the case in 2010 noting that government business was not, in its entirety, supposed to be in the public domain. Court ruled that keeping of certain documents secret was necessary for the proper functioning of public service.
 
This was viewed as a major setback for most journalists who thought passing the law had cleared such hurdles.
 
Mwanguhya in a phone interview with URN said several government officials still believe in a culture of holding on to information with a lot of secrecy. He argues that since the law was enacted, the Ugandan citizenry still think the law was made for only journalists.
 
Mwanguhya, who now works for The East African newspaper, says there hasn't been sensitisation in government circles as many government information holders still think they are privileged.
 
"Responses to journalistic inquiries are not taken serious as many people think they are not obliged to reveal any information to them. People still feel this law was made for journalists," Mwanguhya explained.
 
He, however, argues that journalists have also not fully embraced the law.
 
Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), a pan-African NGO and resource Centre that promotes the right of access to information, in their 2017 report reveal that although Uganda was one of the first African countries to adopt the access to information law, there are still huge gaps when compared to the African Union Model Law on Access to Information.
 
In AFIC's 2016 baseline survey, the major challenges experienced by the population are illiteracy, difficulty accessing information from public offices and long distances to the district headquarters where they expect to get information.
 
Studies further show lower staff in government offices has to seek permission from superiors before releasing the information which in a way delays information delivery.
 
Gilbert Sendugwa, AFIC's Executive Director, says even though Uganda has made steps to promote access to information and combat corruption, in practice there is a lack of political will to ensure the right to information for citizens and to end political corruption.
 
Sendugwa argues that there is need mobilise political will in order for government agencies to understand that it's their obligation to inform the public. He also suggests a need to build capacity of public officials to appreciate the law.
 
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He argues that there is a great difference between expression of government's intentions towards commitments regarding access to information legal framework and its implementation.
 
"Between theory and practice, between intentions of power holders and real enjoyment of the right to information, there is a huge gap," he says.
 
Sendugwa notes, however, that research shows that journalists are the least seekers of information through the access to information law. Many, he says, fear that the process may take long hence denying citizens access to some important information.
 
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The law in Uganda provides for 21 days for a government official to respond to an information request. Sendugwa says, however, that this bars journalists who work on strict timelines for their stories.
 
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In 2016 AFIC made a study on Kenya, Malawi and Uganda on enhancing good governance through citizens' access to information. According to the data from Kigezi region in Uganda, of the 26 information requests made by locals, 50% was granted in statutory time, while 4% with an over delay.
 
Where denial of information was recorded, 80% of requestors were never given the reasons for denial while 20% were given reasons such as; misplacement of files and absence of officers concerned. The report concluded that an effective implementation regime required a litigation component.
 
In Africa, 21 out of the 54 countries have a specific access to information legislation, Uganda inclusive.
 
In 2015, the 193 member states of the United Nations adopted a historic resolution committing themselves to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, citing the right of access to information as a driving principle to achieve this vision.
 
The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), in their 2017 position paper on the current state of Access to Information in Uganda, recommend that parliament uses its oversight role to compel all public bodies to comply with section 43 of the Act. Section 43 compels every minister to submit an annual report to parliament on requests for records or access to information made to a public body under his or her ministry.
 
It also recommends that Access to Information Act should be amended to define the specific types of 'national security' information to which access is limited.
 
"This would diminish the blanket excuse of national security being used by government agencies as a reason not to disclose information," reads the report. 

 

About the author

Davidson Ndyabahika
Davidson Ndyabahika is a Journalism major from Makerere University and is passionate about investigative and data journalism with special interest in feature story telling.

He has gone through digital and multi-media training both at Ultimate Multimedia Consult, and has attended Data Journalism Sessions at ACME to enrich his capacity in data journalism.

Davidson has previously freelanced with The Campus Times, The Observer, Chimp reports and URN. He is currently reporting under Education. He is also passionate about reporting on environment, health, crime and political satire writing.

Follow him on Twitter: @dndyaba