KAMPALA – In 2020, Deogratius Masai, 67, was injured as authorities in Namisindwa District arrested him for staying out past 8.00pm which was against government regulations set in place to stop the spread of Covid 19 in the country.
A local journalist, Monica Nandutu, approached the Namisindwa Central Police Station to get information about Masai’s case.
She sought to establish whether Masai’s human rights had not been violated. Police turned her away, pointing her to the Resident District Commissioner, as the one that arrested Masai.
She filled out an application as stipulated under the Access to information [ATI] Act, and approached the District Internal Security Officer, Mr Moses Wanzira demanding to be given the information she required.
Perhaps unaware of the law, or just as an excuse to deny her the information, the DISO told Nandutu that the Public Authority concerned was not bound to give the information.
Nandutu was relentless, she informed the DISO that even an exempted organization was bound to give information as long as the information sought pertains to violation of human rights. Unwilling to see the matter end in the courts of law, the DISO accepted to give information to the journalist.
But unlike Nandutu, Steven Ariong, Daily Monitor’s correspondent for Karamoja sub-region has not been so lucky. He narrates a time he went to Moroto District local government (community development officer) Ms Margie Lolem to get statistics on child marriages and trafficking. Lolem denied him the information, saying he had to first sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the district which would require that the authorities had to read and approve what the journalist had written before he could publish.
This, in Ariong’s understanding was contrary to the law and he thus concluded that the public official was ignorant of the ATI Act.
He thinks that there is need for government to educate civil servants about the ATI Act if it is to be successfully implementation.
Uganda passed the ATI Act in 2005 with an implementation plan and in 2011 set regulations to establish procedures for citizens to request government-held information and for the government to respond to citizen requests. The Act was established as a tool for enhancing citizen engagement and participation in their governance, attaining mass-based empowerment and local level poverty reduction as well as building the organisational capacity of local communities by building a critical mass for the demand of accountability and realisation of other fundamental human rights.
However, to-date many citizens including some journalists are not well versed with the Act while others are completely unaware of the existence of the ATI Act. This has made it difficult for them to approach authorities, especially security organs such as the police force and the army for information.
Bwogi Buyera, a journalist based in Kabale, western Uganda working with The East African Watch, an online news outlet says he has been denied information twice by Uganda Peoples Defense Forces and from Kabale Central police station for undisclosed reasons.
He calls on government to sensitise all ministries, stakeholders and heads of institutions across the country and to monitor to ensure the full implementation of the Act.
Frank Oyugi, a journalist based in Northern Uganda in his paper “Access to information is a fundamental right, published in July 2021, says the ATI Act 2005, it’s regulation of 2011 and Article 41 (1) of the Constitution of Uganda empowers the citizens to access information from government and public bodies. He argues that in real practice, a larger proportion of the citizenry especially in the rural areas are oblivious of information with government and public bodies, partially because they are not aware of their rights stipulated in the ATI ACT. As such, most often, public officers ride on this to sweep under the carpet information which is vital to aid citizens in critical decision making, such as matters of livelihood, budget making processes and to hold such public officials accountable for their actions and omissions.
Paul Nangoli a journalist and former RDC Mbale says in other cases, there are structural barriers to poor people accessing and using information adding that access to the Internet remains low in rural Uganda, particularly in remote areas
“Do you know that there are people in Uganda who don’t know that there is ATI law? And this ignorance has resulted in human rights abuses going un-reported across the country?” Nangoli poses.
He agrees with Oyugi that the lack of knowledge about the Act hampers information flow and allows public officials abuse their offices.
A new data report by Sauti za Wananchi, indicates that the proportion of information requests being declined has risen sharply, from 3% in 2017 and 5% in 2019 to 36% in 2020.
The survey adds that similarly, the number of citizens reporting that getting information about resources was easy has fallen – from 77% in 2019 to 55% in 2020 and that in 2020, fewer requests were successful on the first visit than in 2017 and 2019.
The data packet titled “Media and Access to Information” presents citizens’ experiences and opinions on the media and seeking information in Uganda. The data comes from Twaweza’s Sauti za Wananchi survey (www.twaweza.org/sauti), a nationally-representative, high-frequency mobile phone panel survey of public opinion and citizens’ experiences.
The data released on 18 December, 2020 also indicates that public support for freedom of expression is strong, and keeps growing and that a large majority of citizens opine that government should only restrict access to information when that information is vital to national security (72%).
“Support for citizens’ right to access information held by government has increased since 2019 and similarly, the majority (77%) say the media should constantly report on government mistakes and corruption, preferring this to the view that negative reporting is harmful,” reads the report in part by Twaweza’s Sauti za Wananchi survey.
The report further states that most (80%) of respondents say citizens should be allowed to criticise national leaders since it helps prevent mistakes, leaving two out of 10 (20%) who prefer the alternative: that freedom to criticise leaders is harmful and on balance, across these cases, support for freedom of expression has increased since 2019.
Mr Yusuf Makweta, a human rights activist in Eastern Uganda says Uganda is one of only 10 African countries with a national access to information (ATI) law and that these types of laws are essential to human rights. He adds that the laws provide citizens with legal access to the government-held information that directly impacts them—information on issues like mining permits, logging concessions, air quality data, and more.
“It is unfortunate that many citizens including journalists are not reading the ATI laws to equip themselves with information and then demand for this right,” said Mr Makweta.
He explains that many citizens, including journalists, may not be aware of their legal right to information, or, in some cases may be reluctant to assert it, either because of fear of a repressive regime, or a prevailing culture of not questioning authority.
Under the ATI Act, a journalist is required to submit a request form for information to any organisation including UPDF to access information including the reasons why he/she wants the information, even when the ATI law does not require the reason to be disclosed.
Mr Makweta says that it is also true that the capacity of public bodies to provide information may be weak and officials may be unaware of their obligations adding that in low capacity environments, record management and statistics generation may be insufficient to support access to information.
The most important point in Makweta’s view is that the enactment of ‘enabling’ laws is a necessary but not sufficient condition for unlocking the right to information, what is needed is due attention to the primacy of socio-political factors-whether an assertive citizenry exists and the degree to which the political regime is really accountable to the citizenry.
Mr Yusuf Mutembuli, the MP for Bunyole East, says ATI is a basic requirement for the achievement of sustainable development and that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.
Mr Mutembuli, who doubles as a lawyer, adds that good environmental governance therefore ensures the effective participation of the public in the preparation and implementation of environmental policies, legal frameworks, plans and projects.
He explains that effective access to meaningful information is the first step in empowering citizens to exercise a degree of control over resources and institutions and the right to know is the basis for stakeholder involvement in environmental decision making processes that affect their lives, their community and the development and security of their country.
He says Access to Information [ATI] is by no means an end in itself, rather it is a means through which communities and individuals alike obtain knowledge of the rights that accrue to them and demand their fulfillment.
While officiating at the launch of the Access to information Act guidelines, then state Minister for Information, Communications, Technology and National Guidance, Mr Peter Ogwang in May 2021, said Government is committed to ensuring that citizens get access to timely and authentic information.
Mr Ogwang explained that it is significant for citizens to get access to information so they are able to appreciate the role of Government in making decisions on their behalf. He also noted that meaningful participation in democratic processes requires an informed populace.
“Therefore, access to information would help to address most grievances that arise due to limited access to full information,” Mr Ogwang said.
Mr Gilbert Sendugwa, the executive director of Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), says because government officials have private lives that might make demands on their public life, people have a right to information that will lead to accountability.
Ms Suzan Agwang, the Legal and Research officer of the African Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) says that several times some organizations are quick to send invoices to journalists and people seeking information and this supersedes the key purpose that the act was created.
According to Mr Robert Webale, the Deputy Resident City Commissioner, Mbale City, government has adopted the various regulations that ease access to information, including Article 41 of the Constitution, the Freedom of Access to Information Act (2005); and the associated Regulations (2011) which guarantee citizens access to government-held information subject to certain specific exemptions.
“We have also started implementing the model for e-governance in all ministries while at all ministries, there is display of information on notice boards for people to be informed and all these are steps to implement the ATI Act 2005,” said Mr Webale.
Mr. Aidan Eyakuze, the executive director of Twaweza-Uganda explains that while it is encouraging that a growing number of African countries are enacting ATI laws, there’s a key lesson to learn from the experience of Uganda and others.
“Getting a law on the books is just the first step in the process to ensuring freedom of information, Eyakuze states, adding: “ATI law implementation is complex—governments must be politically and financially committed to making their ATI laws work for their citizens. Plus, policymakers must possess the know-how to engage citizens and build the infrastructure for greater government transparency.”
Mr James Gyabi, a lawyer in Mbale says ATI is critical for enabling citizens to exercise their voice, to effectively monitor and hold the government to account, and to enter into informed dialogue about decisions which affect their lives. He explains that ATI is seen as vital for empowering all citizens, including vulnerable and excluded people, to claim their broader rights and entitlements. However, he says that potential contribution to good governance of access to information lies in both the willingness of government to be transparent, as well as the ability of citizens to demand and use information – both of which may be constrained in low capacity settings.
Mr Gyabi, a former senior state attorney further argues that some of the barriers include a key question of to what extent can ATI and government transparency advance the claims of poor and marginalized groups and make governments accountable.
He adds that many commentators caution that ATI does not necessarily lead to greater citizen participation, state accountability and state responsiveness. Structural and political barriers hinder both the capacity and incentives of governments to produce information, and the ability of citizens to claim their right to information and to use it to demand better governance and public services. Gyabi notes, adding that the government may not be actively supportive of the right to information, particularly in contexts where there is a legacy of undemocratic political systems or closed government.
_This story was developed with a funding grant from the Uganda Editors’ Guild_