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Red Tape, Cost Cited as Obstacles to Information Access

According to the Access to Information Act, every citizen has a right of access to information and records in the possession of the State or any public body, except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person.
The Ask your Government portal

Audio 14

Bureaucracy and the cost of accessing information remain major obstacles to the enjoyment of the key universal right amongst Ugandans, despite the existence of the Access to Information law.

Our research has shown that Ugandans have made up to 7,189 information requests to 109 government agencies since 2014 when the Ask Your Government portal was launched to support citizens’ rights to access to information. 

The portal, an initiative of the Office of the Prime Minister, Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) is meant to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance, and enhance the right to access to information.

According to the Access to  Information Act, every citizen has a right of access to information and records in the possession of the State or any public body, except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person.     

But, as the world celebrates International Day for Universal Access to Information,  the right remains a challenge in both public and private offices, where officers are reluctant to provide information, while many others charge exorbitantly to access information. Our reporter has established that requests directed to the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), the Uganda National Examinations Board, the Ministry of Education and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) through the portal went unanswered, while many others received automated replies.

Gilbert Sendugwa, the Executive Director of Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), says that the process of accessing information has become extremely expensive.  For instance, when AFIC asked the National Medical Stores (NMS) for information regarding details of health procurements, the organisation was issued with an invoice of 10 million Shillings to secure information from the archive. 

In the request for information dated December 16, 2020, the NMS’s General Manager Moses Kamabare said that they would immediately start assembling this information once the organisation submitted the proof of payment.

“The information requested is available but archived in various containers, we are ready to start preparing the information as requested. However, you are requested to pay 10 million shillings as the cost of preparing the information,” Kamabare stated in his response.

Sendugwa recalls that his requests to the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) were also declined on grounds that releasing them was likely to violate the right to privacy. One of the requests was about information relating to compensations along the Nebbi-Goli Customs Road project.

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Philip Mugerwa, a businessman said he sought information about payment for a service delivered, but he was tossed up and down, causing delays. He calls for a mindset change for the bureaucratic offices, where information is never pinned on notice boards.   

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Journalist Moses Mulondo shares that even for those whose jobs depend on access to information, it is oftentimes a hustle to get information from some government agencies. Mulondo says information for instance from the Uganda National Examinations Board comes at an unaffordable cost and a long list of requirements which sometimes complicate the process. 

The board charges one million Shillings for persons seeking access to UNEB Data, while those seeking access to education papers of any other person are required to present a letter of authorisation and identification documents from the person whose records are being sought.  

Former Journalist and now Kira Municipality MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda says that many government agencies do not have any interest in giving information to those who need it.

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Similarly, Bugabula South MP Maurice Kibalya says that even as legislators, they are still finding difficulty in accessing the information they need outside the parliament setting.

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Sendugwa says the government should invest in the implementation of the Acess to Information Act. He says Ministries and Departments need to budget for the implementation and designate officers responsible for implementing the law, adding that although Ministers are expected to present annual reports detailing the number of requests submitted to them, those responded to and those rejected, no Ministry has done that to date.     

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Peter Okello Jabweri, a member of the Uganda Media Council says that the implementation of the Access to Information Act has been generally lukewarm, citing that when journalists tried to invoke the law to ensure that the oil agreements are availed, the courts ruled that such agreements were confidential.       

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Jabweri also says that the 21 days given to public officials to avail information is too long and should be reduced to at least 24 hours.

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Juliet Nanfuka, a digital expert with CIPESA says that blocking social media and imposing taxes on the internet are some of the factors that are limiting access to information. 

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Nanfuka says that there is a need to apply pressure to the people in power by demanding more information even though it is not being responded to, as well as a need for Journalists, citizens and scholars to follow up promises and statements.

  

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But the Minister of ICT in charge of National Guidance Godfrey Kabbyanga Baluku advises Ugandans to follow guidelines to get information adding however that some information cannot be given out if it threatens the security or privacy of the government and persons involved.

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The theme for this year’s celebration; The Right to Know – Building Back Better with Access to Information, highlights the fact that the public’s need for accurate and reliable information has never been stronger than now, as countries’ struggle to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic rebuild communities and institutions.

It also highlights the role of access to information laws and their implementation to build back strong institutions for the public good and sustainable development, as well as to strengthen the right to information and international cooperation in the field of implementing this human right.