6 February, 2015 was an important milestone for freedom of access to information in Uganda. At the Chief Magistrate’s Court of Mengo in Kampala, before a small crowd of witnesses, a ruling was given that upheld the constitutional right of citizens to access information in the possession of the State, regardless of the reasons for which the information is requested.
The matter dates back to 2 September 2013 when Edward Sekyewa, Executive Director of the Hub for Investigative Media, filed an access to information request with the Executive Director of the National Forestry Authority (NFA). Sekyewa had discovered, from the forestry authority’s 2009-2014 business plan, four key areas of forestry development and conservation that were funded by a World Bank grant.
“I realized that most of the areas in the business plan had not been implemented yet the World Bank grant was given to the National Forestry Authority,” he told ACME, “and the time for implementation of the plan had run out.”
Sekyewa made information requests in regard to those areas, but received no response from the forestry authority. After a denial of access from the NFA executive director, he instructed his lawyer, Isaac Semakadde Kimaze of the Centre for Legal Aid, to file a court appeal on behalf of the Hub for Investigative Media.
“The World Bank grant was money forwarded to NFA to implement a project on behalf of all Ugandans, so I was convinced that NFA was obliged to furnish us with information regarding the project,” he said.
In his ruling on the case, Chief Magistrate Boniface Wamala, noted that the refusal of the NFA executive to give a decision on Sekyewa’s application within the statutory period of 21 days was “wrong, improper and indeed out of keeping with the (Access to Information) Act.” The information requested for was liable to mandatory disclosure to public interest, he said, because the NFA is a public body and public interest in its disclosure is greater than any harm that may be contemplated by the Authority.
The disclosure of the information, Mr Wamala added, “would reveal evidence of substantial wrong doing such as the failure to comply with established procurement procedures” and it would reveal any risk connected with the mismanagement of Uganda’s forests.
Central to the NFA’s refusal to release information about the use of the World Bank grant was the argument that the Hub for Investigative Media is private business entity and was therefore obliged to disclose the reason and purpose for which the information was required. The Authority’s legal counsel contended that there was a possibility that public interest would be jeopardized in the event that Sekyewa and his organization misused the information provided.
Chief Magistrate Wamala however ruled that there was no legal justification that argument. He quoted Section 6 of the Access to Information Act, 2005, which states that a person’s right of access is not affected by the reason given for the information request. Requests are also not to be subjected to the information officer’s belief as to what the person’s reasons are for requesting access.
The provision of the Act, Mr Wamala said, “is quite clear and unequivocal.” He noted that the reasons for which the information is required or the belief about how it will be used “are irrelevant considerations.”
The NFA also argued that it had a right to not to disclose information because it may be likely to prejudice the security of the State. This, the court clearly opposed.
“There is no allegation herein, let alone a possibility, that the release of the information required may be prejudicial to the security or sovereignty of the state or the privacy of any person … and I don’t see how release of the required information would be prejudicial to public interest,” Wamala stated.
He said the National Forestry Authority was not justified to refuse the request for access to the information sought and that it acted “in blatant disregard of the law.”
Mr Wamala ordered the Executive Director of the NFA to grant the request of the Hub for Investigative Media, as well as all records of information that Edward Sekyewa requested for in accordance with the Access to Information Act.
He concluded with an order restraining the NFA boss from concealing information pertinent to the funding that the NFA received from the World Bank to finance its business plan.
For Sekyewa, victory in this case is not a personal triumph, but a triumph for all Ugandans. He told ACME that it is a precedent-setting ruling that may go a long way in ensuring transparency and accountability in all government agencies.
The Hub for Investigative Media has filed court cases to contest denial of access to information from 24 different government agencies.
“The most important thing in this (the NFA case) is that government agencies realize that they cannot act with impunity, but are obliged to follow the laws of the land,” he said.
“This is the first ruling we have had so far, but many others are on the way because we have many cases before court on Access to Information issues.”
As it awaits action on the 24 court cases, the Hub for Investigative Media is expanding its work around Uganda. It has filed 132 requests in 10 districts in order to obtain information about public programmes in the areas of education, health, works and water and sanitation. In March 2015 it will publish a journal documenting those cases, with the intention that this will be used as a tool for public education and a historical record of the implementation of Uganda’s Access to Information Act.