As we continue reflecting on the International Day for Universal Access to Information, Africa Freedom of Information Centre, with support from the Democratic Governance Facility had a students’ debate which was jointly organized in partnership with Open Space Centre, on issues of accountability and access to Information in Uganda, and to increase awareness amongst the youth on issues of accountability and access to information. The theme of the students’ debate was “the role of access to information in ensuring transparency and accountability” that brought together young people from across East Africa. Open Space Centre is a non-partisan, not for profit youth-led agency whose business embodies the broadening of space and opportunities for young people to enhance their full potentials through debate and leadership skills enhancement.
The major highlights of the conversations were to assert the importance of access to information in various processes, and how young people can use it to demand for transparency and accountability.
“Information is needed to influence the decisions that governments make, which is why we need it to ask the right questions.” Said Gilbert Sendugwa while making his opening statement during the students’ debate.
A one Hawa Nanjobe Kimbugwe affirmed that it is indeed important to not only ask the right, but also the relevant questions.
He ended his opening remarks hoping that the debate will be fruitful and will help to enhance the need for the youth to demand Information so that they can be able to use Access to Information as a tool to hold governments accountable for the decisions they make.
Ms. Agwang Susan, the Legal and Research Officer at Africa Freedom of Information Centre also informed the young people that over the past nine years, progress on Access to Information, both in law and in practice, has been relatively significant. At the regional level, the number of laws in Africa that specifically guarantee the rights of citizens to access public Information has grown from 6 in 2011 to 25 laws adopted in 2019.
This surge in numbers is particularly important since Access to Information contributes significantly to the realization of all other human rights like freedom of expression, right to health, education, among others. Access to Information is the foundation for gender equality; it is significant in building efficient and accountable institutions, countering corruption, and ensuring that crises such as the COVID-19 outbreak are addressed efficiently.
Accordingly, governments that recognize the cross-cutting significance of Access to Information are more likely to strengthen associated legal frameworks and their implementation.
The growing number of Right to Information constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees in recent years shows that Information has become an essential area of policy development and a critical dimension for the implementation of these policies. She also informed the young people that at the regional level, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) recognizes the significance of Access to Information. It emphasizes that:
“Every individual shall have the right to receive information”
Furthermore, she mentioned that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the plan of action adopted by all 193 United Nations (UN) the Member States to protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, recognizes public Access to Information within Goal 16 that covers the need to promote peaceful and inclusive societies.
As we dived into the debate, Mr. Twebaze Paul, the Principle Judge of the debate reminded the participants that the overall objective of the debate was not to get the winner but rather to see that at the end of the day, everyone can understand and appreciate the role of access to Information in addressing issues of transparency and accountability. Ntambi Blair, a student from Islamic University in Uganda, started off the debate where he noted that Access to Information is provided for in Article 41 of the Ugandan constitution which states that every citizen has the right to access Information in possession of the state or any other organ or agency of the state except where the release of the Information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the state.
He noted that among the Information that cannot be shared include the cabinet and committee minutes. However, he pointed out that this exemption has in one way or the other affected the disclosure of Information whereby it has continuously been used as an excuse by the government bodies to deny the public Information
Mr. Watasa Moses, a Commissioner in Ministry of ICT & National Guidance, appreciated the feedback which he said enables them as government to identify gaps in service delivery, so they plug them up in a timely manner. He also said that Government of Uganda is developing an app to promote information access online and shift from paper requests, and added that the #askyourgov platform that was developed by AFIC is also functional. This was in response to Marie Nanyanzi who expressed concern over the hectic process one has to go through to access public documents, indicating that this alone is a barrier for a number of citizens.
Ntensibe Edgar, said that he heard from numerous sources that files at Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development are archived in hard copy form. “In these COVID-19 times, how easy is it for me, for example to check on my file,” he asked. Marie Nanyanzi went ahead to recommend that there is a need for more sensitization since majority of the citizens are not aware of the current initiatives to enable greater access to Information.
Wanga Akello, a student of YMCA Comprehensive Institute said that some mothers are not accessing medical services because they lack adequate access to Information. “Lack of access to information hinders effective implementation of public policies in place.” She added that access to Information can be promoted through inclusiveness of all, not forgetting people with disabilities.
Aisha Nakanjako said that as a person with disability, she missed out on a number of opportunities from government because she lacked Information on some of them. After her high school studies, she failed to enroll for university studies for a whole year, not until she later learnt that there’s support that is extended to PWDs by government for education. It was then that she was able to enroll at Kyambogo University, however she says she continues to face challenges in accessing information since some public structures are inaccessible for her. She expressed a need to build capacity to PWDs in various rural communities because the majority are suffering due to lack of access to Information, but also they are not aware of their right to Information. She also added that they face stigma, especially where they are denied opportunities due to their conditions.
Access to Information is a universal right and Uganda has to respect this right.” Tabitha, Human Rights Association, Uganda Christian University Chapter.
In her submission, she noted that in order to ensure Access to Information to the citizenry, the government of Uganda has put in place bodies responsible for ensuring that Information is disseminated to the public, for example, the Ministry of Information and Technology and the Minister of Information is supposed to give a report on Access to Information every year. However, she noted that since 2005 the report on Access to Information had not been submitted. She also observed ignorance as one of the factors that are hindering the disclosure of Information; both on the side of the public and the government officials whereby the public is ignorant about the Information they are supposed to demand and equally the government officials don’t know the Information they are supposed to give to the public.
Ssegawa Sebastian, a student of Kyambogo University, who also emerged the winner of the day, said that the biggest hindrance to people accessing credible Information from Government of Uganda is the bureaucracy involved. This, in the long run, affects service delivery.
“Its true governments have structures that can disseminate information. However, they are not effective, and that’s why they need support from the private sector. Without Information, we are walking with our eyes shut in a very dark alley. But also, it’s the responsibility of every individual to be interested in access to Information. It’s our duty to request for Information from government,” Said Rioba Mirriam, a student of Jomo Kenyatta University.
Ntambi Blair recommended that Government of Uganda should ensure that every public institution has a designated Communications Officer and also better record-keeping to ease access to Information.
Rioba Mirriam expressed concern that governments in Africa only give Information basing on who one is, indicating that it’s a challenge to accessing Information. She said that we will reduce corruption in procurement if Information is accessible for all, young people will participate meaningfully in elections when they access Information. Mr. Watasa Moses responded saying that Government of Uganda remains open to exploring more options to improve access to Information in Uganda. He said that the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance appreciates the partnership with Africa Freedom of Information Centre in the efforts to promote access to Information in Uganda.
Open Space Centre, for which AFIC collaborated within the students’ debate emphasized that governments across Africa need to embrace public-private partnerships. Private entities can help governments to disseminate Information to more people as long as it’s from credible sources.
The askyourgov platform can be used by all to request for Information from Ministries, Departments and Agencies. Mr. Watasa Moses said that while there are still gaps, the resourcing for communication is actually improving.
“We believe resourcing will continue improving, and such engagements can also improve our outreach.”
This was in response to a citizen who highlighted that looking at the financial allocations for the financial year 2017/2018, the resources allocated to communication was really meager.
Government’s efforts to promote cannot go unnoticed because where there is a will, there is away. We commit to continue promoting Access to Information and beyond.
Access to Information is a human right that serves the entire public, including women, the youth, civil society, and the media, among others. The youth, in particular, are at the heart of Africa’s development. They have a central role to play in ensuring reforms of African institutions and to champion youth-led accountability. When they have Access to Information held by public and relevant private bodies, they are empowered to contribute to sustainable development. Despite the importance of citizens’ access to Information, many countries are still challenged in ensuring the proper implementation of guarantees for public access to Information. In Africa, 30 countries are yet to enact and implement national laws promoting citizens access to Information. Even the 25 countries with specific laws on access to information struggle with implementation.
Access to Information is essential to hold leaders accountable, to increase safety in the field of health and to ensure increased citizens’ engagement in public affairs. The right to Information, especially when overseen by special bodies, ensures that governments inform citizens on their actions, which is relevant in times of crisis. Such transparency and disclosure contribute to sustainable development in general and ensure access to health, education and justice, among others.