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UNESCO and Partners Mark IDUAI 2021 with a Call to Strengthen Regional Legislation on Access to Information

UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa and its partners, joined the rest of the world to commemorate 28th September, the 2021 International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) under the theme, The Right to Know: Building Back Better with Access to Information.”

The regional dialogue, which was attended by participants from Eastern Africa and beyond, including UNESCO Regional Director for Eastern Africa, the African Union Commission, and the Speaker of Parliament of the Republic of Uganda Hon. Jacob Oulanyah highlighted the role of access to information laws and their implementation to build back better institutions for the public good and sustainable development and strengthen the right to information and international cooperation in implementing this right.

Speaking from UNESCO Regional Office in Nairobi, Professor Hubert Gijzen, the UNESCO Regional Director of Eastern Africa, highlighted the importance of reliable and timely information, noting that it can positively affect peoples’ lives and transform societies.

Professor Gijzen said the importance of access to reliable information was illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered an immense hunger for information by the public and by specific stakeholders, including health professionals, researchers, and policymakers.

“As the UN agency with a specific mandate to promote “free flow of ideas by word and image”, UNESCO supports communication and information communities to tackle the current COVID-19 crisis and related infodemic. Professor Gijzen said.

Professor Gijzen added that access to information is not enough. People need relevant, verified, and reliable information, but also available in languages that they understand. Only through this can we build forward better.

“On this Day, we should reaffirm our commitment to promoting constitutional guarantees for access to information, in a continent where only 26 out of 54 countries have access to information laws, and of which 7 from Eastern Africa.” He stressed.

In his opening remarks, Africa Freedom of Information Centre Executive Director, Mr. Gilbert Sendugwa stated that while rebuilding lives and economies affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a need to put access to information at the forefront.

Mr. Sendugwa added that access to information empowers citizens to demand accountability and effective delivery of services.

“Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had earlier on learned in 2015 from our support by Sida- Sweden in Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda that when citizens access information, corruption and inefficiency in the delivery of public services is fought, for example in western Kenya the government had been paying for sanitary pads to help keep girls in schools yet no supply was being made at the grassroots for several years, but because of access to information this problem was solved and fixed.” He shared.

Mr. Sendugwa also said that women find it very difficult to access information on procurement, adding that unequal access to information is undermining efforts of governments and the international community to address the widening inequality.

Although various African Union treaties recognize the significance of the right to information as a fundamental human right that serves the entire public, the lack of citizens’ access to information continues to hamper the realization of sustainable development goals and other rights.

In his remarks, Ambassador Salah S. Hammad, Head of the African Governance Architecture–APSA Secretariat, African Union Commission noted that the 2021 commemorations were taking place in a difficult context as the world is faced and challenged by the COVID-19 Pandemic. He also added that it is a difficult time for the right of access to information as it is threatened around the world. Restrictions on access to information are attacks against democracy and a clear violation of human and peoples’ rights.

He said the commemoration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information was a reminder to all governments to respect their commitment to advance the promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights.

“This year’s celebration is an opportunity for all members of the International Community to reaffirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good. The theme recognizes the impact of building stronger institutions on our health, our human rights, democracies, and sustainable development.” He said.

“The COVID -19 pandemic has significantly affected lives and economies. It is crucial that public access to information has to be at the center of rebuilding affected lives and economies” he said.

Officiating at the event, Rt. Honorable Speaker of Parliament of Uganda, Hon. Jacob Oulanyah challenged civil society organizations advocating for amendments in the Access to Information Act of Uganda to get down to the local person who lacks even the basic channels to be informed.

According to Hon. Oulanyah, the overall purpose of access to information is to transform the lives of ordinary people in the country whose access to information is limited.

“I challenge civil society to research how the Access to Information Act has benefited rural communities, who make up most of the population,” he said.

He noted that every citizen has a right to seek information from the government, asking the participants to refocus the discussion on access to information to how it supports transformational programs in less developed communities.

However, he expressed disappointment that despite Uganda enacting the access to information Act in 2005, nothing much has been done to benefit the ordinary people.

Hon. Oulanyah also called for widening information coverage, especially in rural areas, to transform the lives of ordinary people.

Mr Robert Kotchani, country representative, Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Uganda said public access to information is closely linked to freedom of expression and freedom of media.

“It empowers citizens to address issues such as corruption and inefficiency in the delivery of services. Access to information is important because it plays a vital role in informing the population about public affairs and monitoring the actions of the government at all levels so they can meaningfully participate in their communities,” he said.

He highlighted the need to reiterate the commitment to make access to information a privilege to ensure we attain Sustainable development Goals especially goal 16 which talks about peace, justice, and strong institutions.

Hon. Joyce Ssebugwawo the Minister of ICT in charge of Information says that information helps in the delivery of government services. She said the government established information access centers like the Government Citizens Interaction Center to ensure that the government officers give out timely information to citizens if requested.

“I urge the public to put these platforms to good use and the officers sharing this information to work effectively and avail the information that the different individuals may need.” Sebugwawo said.

 “Access to information is a fundamental right as stated in the Republic’s constitution of Uganda. We have created an enabling environment for access to information, for example, there is access to the internet by Ugandans which makes access to information easy,” Joshua Akandwaho, the Business Process analyst NITA-U, said. 

He, however said there is a need to improve on different legal regimes and policies on information for timely access to information by Ugandans. 

Representing the disabled community, Mr. Simon Eroku, one of the persons living with disabilities (PWDs) faulted the governments for inadequate facilities for PWDs which he said has affected the access to information by PWDs. 

Speaking through a sign interpreter, Eroku said, “The governments should make sure sign interpretations are deployed in public places such as hospitals, where there are public services, we want to see how stakeholders can come together to ensure issues of disability are put in different government programs.” 

The UN general assembly proclaimed the International Day for Universal Access to Information in October 2019 and since then, 28 September is celebrated worldwide.

The regional dialogue was organized by the Africa Freedom of Information Centre in partnership with UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, the African Union Commission, Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Uganda, Twaweza East Africa and the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance of Uganda.