Twaweza Uganda and Africa Freedom of Information Centre, in partnership with the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance have today the 6th of May 2021, officially launched the Access to Information Guide for Civil Servants. The Minister for State for ICT and National Guidance, Hon. Peter Ogwal, officiated this.
In 2005, Uganda enacted the Access to Information Act, preceded by the regulations in 2011 which provide more detail on how the citizens’ constitutional right of access to information should work in practice as a resultant of Article 41 of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda which gives every citizen the right to access information held by public bodies.
As a fundamental human right, the United Nations recognizes access to information in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and by the AU through the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In addition, the African Union underscores the significance of access to information in public participation through its treaties. These include the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the African Youth Charter, and the African Charter on Values and Principles of Public Service Administration. The importance of advancing and enforcing access to information is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Most recently, in 2019, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted an expanded Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa. The Declaration’s Principle 26 states that law shall guarantee the right of access, expeditiously and inexpensively.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
Whereas Uganda is one of the 25 countries that have the ATI law out of the 55 AU Member States, the best practice of proactive disclosure is rarely embraced. Though citizens want to know more from and about their governments, most states instead conceal information and encourage secrecy.
Studies by AFIC and others by Global Integrity, the Carter Centre, and UNESCO) show ATI laws are not being implemented to a great extent. Public officials often are not aware that the laws exist or do not understand their obligations under them. Misunderstanding of conflicting laws sometimes drives this, like the Official Secrects Acts. Twaweza Uganda study shows that 7 out 10 citizens say it’s difficult to access information on government budgets, laws and projects.
In this context, Twaweza Uganda, Africa Freedom of Information Centre in partnership with the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance compiled guidelines whose aim is to explain what the Access to Information law means in practical terms for civil servants, which was launched on 6th May 2021 in Kampala, Uganda. This guide covers aspects of benefits of ATI, what information can be requested and what is exempt, and how civil servants should respond to information requests, among others.
In his remarks, Aidan Eyakuze, the Executive Director of Twaweza East Africa emphasized the significance of access to information, particularly in times of crises as the covid-19 pandemic where access to information has proved to be a matter between life and death.
“We reduce uncertainty when we have access to information. Information as a public good doesn’t diminish as many people use it, just as public health and national security. The more people share information, the better for citizens and government.” Aidan Eyakuze, Executive Director, Twaweza East Africa.
Violet Alinda, Twaweza Uganda Country Lead and Director of Voice and Participation, said “We are delighted to be involved in preparing this guide for civil servants which is an important step in unlocking citizens’ right to access government information.”
Gilbert Sendugwa of the Africa Freedom of Information Centre added, “Understanding their legal obligations in terms of the Access to Information Act and having the capacity to implement these obligations is critical for civil servants. We are pleased to work with Twaweza and the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance to build this awareness and capacity.”
The Minister of State for ICT and National Guidance showed that as Government, they are committed to ensuring that citizens get the information timely and authentically so that they can understand the role of Government and the decisions being made on their behalf and also take part in development processes. He further mentioned that government is making deliberate efforts to ensure that information is no longer a limiting factor for citizens to actively engage and benefit from government programmes.
“We believe that citizens’ participation is at the pinnacle of accountability of the various government programs and the access to information and their participation in government process for improved service delivery.”
During the launch, some participants complained about the challenges faced by citizens in accessing public information.
“Communication Officers are the biggest impediment to access to information. It’s very critical for them to understand that they ought to provide information to the media and public as much as possible.”
“The Official Secrets Act has been used several times to deny us information, while many public officials are not aware of this law and yet they are supposed to give us information.” Buwembo, URN.
“How can we make information flow rather than just an event; I expect information flow to be organic, to be natural.” Robert Ninyesiga, Uganda National NGO Forum.
In response to these concerns, Mr. Mayende Simon, a Director with the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance made a commitment that the ATI will not remain in shelves, but be dissemination to all Ministries, Departments and Agencies, as well as Information Officers at Local Government level. He also emphasized that the ministry will ensure that they work closely with the media for massive dissemination and popularization of the ATI guide. Regarding the conflicting laws to access to information, he mentioned that the head of Public Service issued a circular to that effect showing that civil servants should hide behind the Official Secrets Act to deny citizens information.
Despite the existence of the law, the ministry acknowledges the challenges to its full implementation. The Minister of State for ICT and National Guidance appreciated the creation of the guide which he said presents a unique opportunity to unlock the challenges of access to information for all Ugandans to promote inclusivity, transparency, accountability and good governance.
“As the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, we recognize these efforts and pledge our full support in promoting such initiatives for the benefit of the populace and our nation. As government, we are honored to be part of the creation of this Access to Information Guide together with our partners, Twaweza Uganda and Africa Freedom of Information Centre.” Hon. Peter Ogwang, Minister of State for ICT and National Guidance.
In conclusion, Africa Freedom of Information Centre affirms that Access to information is a critical enabler of informed expression, participation in governance, and public accountability.
As the world implements its commitment to eradicating poverty and achieving sustain-able development through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we need access to information for the realization of other rights, such as physical and mental health, education, and equality.