By Gilbert Sendugwa
As we commemorate the first International Day for Universal Access to Information today, September 28, 2020, I reflect back to 2010 when Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) and its African Platform on Access to Information Partners started a campaign for such a day.
We were inspired to start the campaign because at the time there were only five African countries with access to information laws. These were South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda and Ethiopia. Overall there were 85 countries with access to information laws in the world. We were also concerned that countries which had adopted access to information laws were not implementing them effectively. We thus sought to secure a special day at which various stakeholders would reflect on the status of access to information in every country and chart a way forward on its advancement.
In September 2011 we held the first ever Pan African Conference of Access to Information which adopted the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) Declaration. In March 2012 we successfully moved the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to adopt ACHPR Resolution 222 calling upon the African Union to proclaim 28 September as the International Access to Information Day in Africa.
After three years of intense advocacy, the UNESCO General Conference adopted Resolution 38 C/70 of November 3, 2015 which proclaimed September 28th as the International Day for Universal Access to Information. To increase the profile of the Day, we launched a campaign for the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a similar resolution. It took us four years, several trips to New York and intense engagements with various capitals to get the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to finally adopt the resolution, which took place on October 15, 2019.
What is the state of play of access to information in Uganda?
The UNGA Resolution is behind us and the IDUAI is now with us. It is time to reflect and agree how best to make the right to information a reality for everyone. In January 2020, AFIC presented a shadow report on the status of access to information in Uganda to Rt. Hon. Kadaga, Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda. The report finds that by and large government ministries, departments and agencies are not implementing the Access to Information Act. Information requests are routinely denied, procedures for implementing the law have not been established while none of the ministers has complied with reporting obligations to Parliament under Section 43 of the Access to Information Act.
The 2020 IDUAI is being celebrated globally under the theme: “Access to Information in Times of Crisis.” This theme is critical for Uganda. Government through the Ministry of Health has done a commendable job in preventing Covid-19 infection through proactive disclosure of important information. As has been evidenced in countries where proactive disclosure of prevention was low, this step by the Government of Uganda was commendable.
However, beyond prevention information the Government could have done more especially on information regarding procurement as well as accountability for Covid-19 resources. Trillions of shillings were mobilized from development partners such as the European Union, The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other sources, however, information regarding how such funds has been spent hasn’t been disclosed, in spite of provisions in grant agreements with the World Bank and IMF to disclose such information. On the contrary, there have been reports that prices for the supply of Covid-19 test kits was inflated.
Media play a critical role in promoting citizens’ access to information. In Uganda in particular, radio is the most common source of information for nearly half of the population. Of concern, during the Covid-19 pandemic, some journalists like Bashir Kazibwe were arrested for charges related to reporting on Covid-19 issues. The economic hardships from the lockdown forced a number of media houses to close or downsize staffing. Outlets offering local languages were most affected, possibly cutting out vast populations from accessing important Covid-19 information.
As we commemorate the International Day for Universal Access to Information today, Africa Freedom of Information Centre and its members remind the government that access to information is critical in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
We, therefore, call upon Government of Uganda to:
- Recognize the IDUAI Day as an official day at which the government should lead efforts to promote strategies for increased access to information by citizens.
- Every agency should allocate budget for the implementation of the Access to Information Act and ensure its effective implementation.
- Ensure that Ministries, Departments and Agencies proactively and reactively disclose public information as mandated by the law.
- Ministers comply with annual reporting obligations under section 43 of the Act.
- Ensure that the Emergency Procurement Guidelines are effectively implemented as well as public procurement information is disclosed on the Government Procurement Portal in a timely manner, and effectively implement measures to promote transparency in COVID-19 procurements and access to information on COVID-19 response in general.
For more information on access to information, read this backgrounder on the Uganda Journalists Resource Centre
Mr Gilbert Sendugwa is the Executive Director- Africa Freedom of Information Centre