Ugandan media silence on ‘Access to Information’ victory a travesty

Edward Sekyewa should by now have been all over the newspapers. He should have been invited to at least seven radio talk shows and three TV talk shows. A hashtag with his name should have been trending on Twitter in our part of the world.

None of this has happened of course.  You see, Mr Sekyewa does not feature in a sex video. He is not one of the MPs fighting for a bed at Kyankwanzi, where the ruling party recently held its retreat, or asking for a reward of Shs.300 million from His Excellency Yoweri ‘The Chief Giver’ Kaguta Museveni. He is not a wealthy surgeon accused of funding Sheik killers. He is not former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s supporter who has been stopped from addressing a rally. He is not a public officer who has been involved in a corruption scandal. He has not killed his parents and sibling. He has not won a national or regional award and is not one of the stars of last year’s O’ Level examinations.

Mr. Sekyewa is Executive Director of Hub for Investigative Media, a fairly young local organization that is working to promote good governance and accountability through forcing government institutions to release information on matters of public interest when citizens demand it.

The indefatigable Sekyewa, who has worked as journalist, has filed information request after another under Uganda’s Access to Information Act, 2005. He is doing this to put to practice the Access to Information law, which is supposed to “ensure that government ministries, agencies, authorities, commissions and other public bodies … (provide) information relating to these organizations and their operations to the public”.

Of the 24 requests he has filed, access has been granted in only four cases. Six have been denied, while 16 are pending. You can see the details and status of his requests here.

Last year, Mr Sekyewa took the National Forestry Authority to Court for failing or refusing to give him a decision on his 2013 request for “access to information regarding the procurement of the necessary equipment for prohibiting, control and management of fires in the 506 Central Forest Reserves in the country” within the statutory 21 days after receipt of a request form.

Mr Sekyewa argued that the National Forestry Authority’s inaction violated the Access to Information law and Article 41 of the Constitution, both of which provide that “Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State 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.”

On Friday 6 February, Chief Magistrate Boniface Wamala at Mengo ruled in favour of Mr Sekyewa saying the National Forestry Authority was not justified to refuse his request for access to the information he sought. The court found that the National Forestry Authority “acted in blatant disregard of the law” and ordered Executive Director Michael Mugisa to grant Mr Sekyewa “access to any and all records or information that (he) requested in accordance with the (law)”.

As far as I know, this is a first in Uganda. Previous attempts to use the courts to force the government to release information deemed to be of public interest have not been successful.

This is a victory for freedom of expression/right to information activists, for the media, and for all Ugandans.

But there is a problem. A BIG problem. The Ugandan media don’t seem to get this. More than a week after the court’s ruling, no newspaper had covered the story. I have not heard the story over the airwaves and I have failed to find any reference to the case online.

This is a tragedy. Mr Sekyewa, who is baffled by the silence or indifference of his ‘friends’ in the media, put it this way when I talked to him over the phone on Thursday: “I find it quite absurd, but you can’t force people to take up issues.”

I think we should. Yes, force the media to take up important issues. The media should pay as much if not more attention to freedom of expression and access to information issues as they do to the theatre of our politics and the drama and politics of sex videos.

Access to information is supposed to be a major pillar in our governance. The framers of our Constitution provided for this right because they believed it was one of the ways through which all Ugandans could participate in their governance.

Now a Ugandan court has reaffirmed this right. The Sekyewa vs NFA case and the simple yet brilliant ruling of Chief Magistrate Wamala deserve all our attention.

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Read ACME’s story on the Access to Information ruling here.

About Peter G. Mwesige

Dr Mwesige is co-founder and executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) Email: mwesige@acme-ug.org; Twitter: @pmwesige

View all posts by Peter G. Mwesige →

2 Comments on “Ugandan media silence on ‘Access to Information’ victory a travesty”

  1. Good highlight Dr., the very media houses that are not giving this landmark victory the publicity it deserves will someday remember Mr. Sekeywa’s victory when it hits them where it hurts most (when they wish to access any public information and a blatantly denied).

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