August 23, 2021
Over 100 participants from Eastern Africa and beyond representing line Ministries, Parastatals, Agencies, Parliament, Private Sector, Civil society Organizations, Media, and the UN system have re-affirmed their commitment to promote access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms in Eastern Africa.
The commitment was made during a three-day online training workshop under the theme “Building Knowledge Societies to ensure Public Access to Information and protect Fundamental Freedoms in Eastern Africa.”
During his opening speech, Professor Hubert Gijzen, the UNESCO Regional Director Eastern Africa, highlighted the importance of knowledge and information, noting that they had the capacity to positively impact people’s lives and transform societies, and needed to be preserved, accessed and shared for the common good.
He said UNESCO advocates for universal and open access to information and knowledge based on the recognition that these are public goods necessary for the advancement of societies and the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights.
“UNESCO believes we must build knowledgeable societies on four key pillars which include freedom of expression, universal access to information and knowledge respect for the culture and linguistic diversity and quality education for all,” he said.
Professor Gijzen applauded the progress made in enacting access to information laws in the Eastern Africa since 2015 when Uganda became the first country in the region to enact the Access to Information law. He pledged UNESCO’s support to other countries in the region in putting in place access to information laws.
During the training workshop, which was attended by access to information experts, the right to information advocates noted that there was a need to ensure that communities are empowered through access to information and knowledge, which they said were necessary for the advancement of society and protection of fundamental human rights.
“In such a challenging period, where information is needed more than ever before, and in the prospects of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), you will agree with me that, access to information is the oxygen for the realization of all the other SDGs,” Gilbert Sendugwa, the Executive Director, Africa Freedom of Information Center (AFIC) said.
According to Sendugwa, the East African region has made strides in enacting laws that guarantee citizens’ right of access to information, with seven laws adopted in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia Seychelles albeit with gaps in implementation.
He added that six countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Somalia, remain without formal provisions for the right of access to information.
Sendugwa expressed optimism that through multi-stakeholder action, information activists could tackle some of the significant right to information challenges confronting the region today.
He said with collaborative effort; the region could achieve accountable and more robust mechanisms to ensure and protect public access to information.
Information experts decried the gaps in access to information by minority groups such as people with disabilities (PWDs) and minority language groups, who face difficulties accessing information.
To cover the gap, the information activists implored African governments, policy makers and advocates to ensure that access to information laws ensured inclusive and universal access to information and knowledge.
In his presentation, Ambassador Salah S. Hammad, the head of the African Governance Architecture Secretariat at the African Union, noted that the African Human and People’s rights system recognized access to information as a cross-cutting right that was important for the realization of all human rights, including social-economic rights and its potential to contribute to the social and economic transformation of the continent.
He said the uncertainty and disruption brought by the COVID-19 Pandemic had brought to the fore the importance of fundamental human rights, not least of which was the right to access to information.
“It is for this reason that the African Commission adopted the Model Law on Access to Information in Africa, to assist the African Union Member States in the formulation, adoption or review, of access to information legislation and to ensure effective implementation of the laws,” he said.
He noted citizens cannot exercise their right to vote effectively or participate in public decision-making if they do not have access to information and cannot express their views freely.
Dr. Dorothy Gordon, the Chair of UNESCO’s Information for All Program (IFAP), implored information lovers to become ambassadors and experts in their communities by sharing access to information and knowledge and skills.
Access to information
During the training, information expert Dr. Fola Adeleke from South Africa shared with the participants some tips on access to information.
He said there must be a basis for information request such as a problem, undesirable situation, for example service delivery, opportunity, need and rights.
He noted people file for information to find a solution to a problem, gain a better understanding of a situation, policy, take advantage of an opportunity, and hold leaders accountable.
He, however advised that before the information is requested, there must be the identification of an issue or problem, to determine the information needed.
Mr. Dimba Mukelani, the Executive: Education & Communication, South Africa Information Regulator, said information was society’s oxygen, adding that without it, citizens cannot play a meaningful role in society.
“Public agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens and ensure that proactive disclosure is timely. Public authorities have a duty to provide this information. It becomes critical in increasing transparency in acquisition and distribution of scarce public resources,” he said.
At the same training, the Vice-Chair of the UNESCO’s Information for All Programme (IFAP), Prof Yves Poullet explained the need to regulate artificial intelligence ethically and legally.
He said that although artificial intelligence (AIs) systems was essential in the evolution of technologies and ways of meeting humans’ interests; it carried certain risks that need regulatory and ethical frameworks to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. He noted that as part of the mitigation of such risks, UNESCO was working on a Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence to guide countries on harnessing AI’s potential and deal with its associated risks.