Leading Civil Society Organisations have implored the Uganda Electoral Commission to ensure citizens access to timely information on all electoral processes for the country’s presidential and general elections slated for February 2021.
The call was made by the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ), Transparency International-Uganda (TI-U), Kick Corruption out of Uganda (KICK-U), Human Rights Network-Uganda (HURINET) and the Islamic Women’s Initiative for Justice, Law and Peace (IWILAP) at a press conference convened on Monday, June 22, 2020, to address concerns over the revised electoral roadmap released by Uganda’s Electoral Commission.
Citing the importance of citizens’ access to information, civil society leaders said in a statement that people need adequate and timely information to enable them to make informed choices on candidates and political parties to elect. Access to information on electoral processes also enables citizens to trust the electoral process and outcome; the absence of which has quite often led to violence.
Commenting on the impact of lack of access to information on the 2016 presidential elections, the CSO leaders noted that 477,319 votes were declared invalid or spoilt on account of voters lacking information on how to cast their votes. They also attributed persistent low voter turn up to lack of information on the electoral process.
While citing previous experience, Mr. Gilbert Sendugwa, the Executive Director of AFIC said that in 2014 his organization made an information request for polling station results for presidential and primary elections which was unexplainedly denied by the Electoral Commission.
The new roadmap bars candidates and political parties from holding rallies to campaign allegedly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections. The Electoral Commission has restricted campaigning to the use of radio and electronic media. This is of concern as Mr. Robert Sempala; the Executive Director HRNJ-Uganda stated that,
“It is going to be a challenge during the campaign period because most of these stations are owned by people subscribing to the ruling party. Even when you have money, access to these media houses is going to be a challenge to many aspirants.”
According to Mr. Gilbert Sendugwa, lack of access to information creates a situation where leaders and political parties are chosen not based on their ideas and programs but the money they have, a situation that has precipitated the decline in the quality of leadership at all levels in Uganda.
On his part, Mr. Francis Ekadu, the Director Programs at TI-U observed that lack of access to information on the sources, and how campaign funds will be spent has led to the commercialization of elections and undermined peoples’ ability to hold leaders accountable on agenda they represent after being elected.
Sendugwa added that freedom of expression and freedom of the press alongside access to information is critical for a free, fair, and transparent electoral process. Nearly one-third of Uganda’s population can neither read nor write, justifying the need for free media to enable them to distill and ask candidates questions on their pledges. He argued that when people get information, it is natural for them to express themselves on whether they are pleased with what the information is about or not.
The civil society organizations said that whereas peoples’ regular sources of electoral information have been closed by the Covid-19 outbreak, the road map is not clear on efforts the Electoral Commission and other relevant institutions are going to put in place to enable people to have information to enable them to make informed choices as Mr. Ekadu observed,
“This is an election where all stakeholders should be engaged. It is good to follow standard operations Procedure (SOPs) to control contact, but people should be consulted,” Francis Ekadu, the programs Director, Transparency International Uganda.
In view of the above, the CSOs called upon:
- The Independent Electoral Commission should issue and ensure effective implementation of Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections that are consistent with regional and international standards.
- The Electoral Commission ensures timely access to information so as to enable the citizens make informed decisions on who should be their leaders.
- The Electoral Commission, Uganda Police and sister security agencies to create, keep, organize, maintain and manage information about the electoral process in machine-readable formats and in a manner that facilitates the right of access to information.
- All public agencies to commit to ensuring that information requests will be processed and responded to in a timely manner.
- The government to ensure that media and the press are allowed to operate independently without intimidation or any form of censorship.
- The Electoral Commission to conduct wide consultations on the revised electoral roadmap and how all citizens can access public information on the entire electoral process all the time.