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Why Access to Information Matters!

by Donnas Ojok
Keynote Address by Donnas Ojok at the Access to Information Public Dialogue held at Pauline Hotel, Lira Town on the 19th March 2019.

I suffer from nostalgia every time I come to Lira!

It’s always a pleasure to be home, isn’t it?

It’s even more pleasurable to be home to engage on how we can be better citizens and share insights on how we can work more collaboratively and productively with our public and political leaders.

 

One way to facilitate this engagement is to seek to be informed if you are a responsible citizen; inform the ordinary citizens if you are a responsible and responsive leader. This is why it is important to have a discourse on access to information not only as a development pre-requisite but also as a human right and a central pillar for democratic deepening.

 

Uganda was among the first African countries to enact a right to information law, the Access to Information Act (ATIA) in 2005 and later the Access to Information Regulations in 2011. The Act was enacted to promote the right to access to information, promote an efficient, effective, transparent and accountable Government and to enable the public to effectively access and participate in decisions that affect them as citizens of the country.

 

How about we first get back to the basics to fully understanding why we have gathered here today.

 

What is information? What is access to information? What is the quality and frequency of information being accessed? Who can access this information? Any ordinary Ugandan? What and who determines the priority of information access? All these and many more questions have to be understood and answered to get the gist of what information access is. Perhaps understanding this key terms will give us a preamble to why access to information matters.

Information can be generally described as facts; a collection of factual details about a specific subject. For instance, this can be factual details about the company that was contracted to build Akii Bua stadium and how much money was used to construct the stadium within which duration of time.

Access to information is the ability to access information which is under the control of a government institution. To continue with the example above, a similar example would be: is the chief accounting officer of Lira District and Lira Municipal Council willing or not to provide information pertaining to the construction of Akii-Bua stadium.

Should information about the construction of the stadium be accessible to all and for what? A journalist once insinuated to me that when he inquired about what he thought was a public information, the public official asked: who are you and whom do you think you are?

Just as a reminder, access to information is a fundamental human right recognized by international human rights instruments including article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further re-echoed in Article 41 of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

While these legal frameworks provide fundamental blueprints, the implementation of the Access to Law is thwarted by a plethora of challenges. In 2017, CIPESA a leading ICT think-tank in Africa identified the following as impediments to access to information;

  • Exemptions on information accessibility i.e. where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State, or interfere with the right to privacy of any other person
  • Bureaucracy; According to section 3 (d) of the Access to Information Act, every citizen is supposed to access information easily and in a timely manner. The Act provides for a maximum of 21 days within which a citizen’s information request is responded to. Delayed release of information leads to the loss of usability of information especially for journalistic work as well as the enforcement of human rights and freedoms
  • Limited scope of bodies required to disseminate information; Article 41 of the Constitution and sections 2 and 5 of the Access to Information Act limit access to information to that in possession of public bodies, thereby excluding private companies and civil society.
  • Ignorance of the Law and its Relevance: It is an obligation of the State to sensitize its citizens on the right to information. However, Uganda’s citizens including information officers and various officials in some government ministries, departments and agencies remain ignorant about the existence of the law on access to information, its importance and its implementation

The good news is that organizations and movements are intensifying the demand for information from the government, especially information about what policies and decisions are being made for the citizens. 

Access to information matters because accountability and transparency can only be achieved with readily accessible quality and timely information disseminated to the masses. When ordinary citizens are informed, they become equipped with the requisite intellectual tools to actively participate in governance processes.

This participation can be a simple question by a concerned dweller of Lira Municipality asking the mayor or the responsible district and municipality engineers: “My Lord and your officers why isn’t the road from town to Ireda still very dusty? What plans are in place to tarmac it? In essence, I am actually trying to ask the question since my parents live in Ireda.

As I conclude, I would like to emphasize why the media industry is a key player in making access to information as a human right be achieved. I am emphasing this because the access to information law has not been put into vigorous use by the media that is the tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that the public remains informed about what goes on in government. The media should champion this mantle because they are the eyes and ears of the public. I also wish to remind that media houses that this law is one of the most important instrument available at their disposal to ensure that the government remains accountable to the public through disclosing information that is held by the state, apart from some exemptions as stipulated in the law.

Lastly, new media platforms particularly social media present unique opportunities to facilitate access to information. I cannot imagine going to visit district notice boards to read latest updates in this 21st first century. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp enable information to spread instantaneously.

Government offices should embrace this opportunity not only to cut cost but also improve information flow and effectiveness. As citizens, we should also continue constructively holding our public offices to account by tweeting and Facebooking more responsibly. Social media is one of the greatest tools we have as ordinary citizens to hold our leaders to account.

I appeal to us to be hungry to be informed and angry when not informed!

 

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