Times have changed. In Uganda, public awareness about what’s happening has greatly improved thanks to the birth of the internet and the rise of traditional media. Many policy makers are using both online and offline media to communicate with their constituents and constituents are using the same to put them to book.
At the back of this, is the understanding that no democratic country can be referred to as one if the citizenry is not informed and such a citizenry is not possible without broad public access to information about the operations of government.
In terms of governance, this enables the citizenry to monitor operations of the government and is the basis for informed monitoring and debating of their actions. For the private and civil society sector, it (access to good information) helps in having a strong background when also putting the government(s) to book in case it deviates away from its mandate.
But is this the case?
Access to information in Uganda remains an illusion even when we’re a signatory to international obligations, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Declaration on the Rights of the Child, African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights which all recognise that the right to information is a fundamental right.
Back home, the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda states that every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the state or any other organ of the state except where the release of the information is likely to interfere with the security of the state or the right to the privacy of any other person under article 41.
The government even has gone ahead to provide public education airtime on radios, developed a government communication strategy to ease communication between its bodies, dedicate a full Ministry of ICT and National Guidance to implement its ICT policies and the recently set up Government Citizens Interaction Centre (GCIC) aimed at promoting citizens monitoring of its programs.
To even “prioritise” access to information further, Uganda enacted the Access to Information Act, 2005 making it be among the first countries on the continent to enact a law on the right to information. The main purpose of the Act is to empower the public to effectively scrutinise and participate in “government decisions that affect them”. It is supposed to promote an efficient, effective, transparent and accountable government by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information in the confines of the government agencies. However, much needs to be done to maintain the government’s commitments to ensuring the promotion of access to information.
To start with, the Act itself has been criticised for serving the opposite of what it is meant to serve. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in its report Citizens’ Perceptions of Using ICT to Make Right to Information Requests in Uganda, showed how there is wide knowledge gap of the ATIA law and a need amongst citizens for effective channels through which to exercise their right to access information (page 14).
In the recent case of CEHURD and Others v. Executive Director of Mulago National Referral Hospital and Attorney General, health rights activists went to court as a last resort to get access to a document held by Mulago Hospital, the National Referral Hospital. The main case involves a woman who delivered twins at the hospital but was given only one live child at the time of discharge. The hospital claimed that the second baby had died shortly after birth, but they could not produce the dead body. The mother was discharged without any medical records or a death certificate for the child. Following pressure from the couple and their supporters, the hospital produced a dead body whose DNA was later found not to be a match with either of the supposed parents.
Secondly, CIPESA in its position paper on the right to information in Uganda, 2017 notes that the wide exemptions to accessible information: Under article 41, the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State, or interfere with the right to privacy of any other person. However, the Access to Information Law, 2005 in Part III (section 23 – 34) lists exemptions which are too wide in scope and contradict the constitution.
These exemptions, which include cabinet minutes and those of its committees, limit the enjoyment of the right to information by restricting access to vital records. In simple terms, It doesn’t make sense to have a law that grants access to information, if there is not at the same time a clear and workable system of mechanisms to enable citizens to use the law.
How can we improve access to information in Uganda?
Today in Uganda many people are connected to the internet. According to the Internet World Stats, there are approximately 11,924,927 internet users in Uganda as at the end of 2016. These Ugandans “enter the internet” through internet access devices and they navigate freely around it, and those people who learn how to navigate better in that space are finding that they have better access to information about jobs and education and all the good things that our society produces.
The Ugandan government, therefore, needs to embrace e-governance as a fast means of providing information to citizens. Through the internet and social media, we can improve access to information and ultimately realise increased usage that will promote confidence to make information requests as well as promote timely and proactive disclosure of information.
But we also need to be careful. There is a difference between having access to information and having the savvy it takes to interpret it. The information that is provided needs to be broken down to be interpreted by the general public so as we realise the ultimate need as to why the information is being provided- to be understood.
Therefore, participation in democratic processes requires citizens who have adequate knowledge of their rights in order to participate meaningfully. Secrecy reduces the information available to the citizenry, hobbling their ability to participate meaningfully. This can only be achieved if the government sees passage, implementation and enforcement of a vigorous access to information law as a priority.
On the other hand, citizens should care about access to information because it gives them an opportunity to take part in the country’s priority setting, monitor the government actions, hold the government accountable, and to assure equal treatment and equal justice. Information belongs to the people as per the Constitution; the government only holds it in our name.