Why public officers deny citizens access to information and records

access to information and records
Access to Information Campaign Poster

Kampala, Uganda | URN | The right to access to information in Uganda has been curtailed due to deficient implementation of the Access to Information Law Enacted in Uganda almost 16-years ago. 

As the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) marks the 2020 International Day for Universal Access to Information 28 September. It is emerging that in Uganda, the law is more on paper than practice. 

Twaweza’s Sauti za Wananchi survey on Citizen’s and Civil servants’ perspectives about access to information law is revealing on whey the law has remained on shelves. 

The November 2019 survey found that elected and appointed leaders had limited knowledge of the Access to Information Law and its regulations. The citizens on the other hand have not proactively used the law to access information and government records. 

While the majority of Ugandans have not used the law to exercise rights as per the constitution, some have and the benefits are evident. The director Africa Freedom of Information Centre, Gilbert Sendugwa told this publication that some people who have accessed information have seen the benefits.  

So for every service that is not functioning, Sendugwa and others believe that to solve that issue, is to have a culture for public officials disclosing information. Marie Nanyanzi was part of the Twaweza survey research team that explored civil servants’ views on access to information and citizen participation.

Kamuli District Chief Administrative Officer, Elizabeth Namanda agrees with the Twaweza findings. She says most of the officers have not been sensitized about the Access to Information Act 2005 and its guidelines that have been in place since 2011.   

According to Gilbert Sendugwa, without access to information, we cannot make informed decisions. A citizen cannot hold governments accountable and expose corruption to promote an effective and transparent government. 

The Access to Information Law requires Parliament to oversee and ensure that when citizens make requests, respective Ministries, Agencies and Departments respond. But since 2005 no such attempts have been made by Parliament to ensure that ministers adhere to the reporting obligations as required by law. 

While most of the government officers as per the Twaweza report said they were not aware of the Access to Information law, some say they have not been granting access to information requests because the Access to information law seems to contradict other laws according to Duncan Abigaba, the Manager at the Government’s Citizen Interaction Centre. 

“You have article 41 of the constitution saying citizen have the right to access to information, you also have the access to information Act of 2005. Then you have other rules that provide cover for civil and public servants not to provide this information. The public standing orders, the oath of allegiance, the official secrets oath. So many other rules.” 

But for Peter Magelah, a Human Rights Lawyer with Chapter Four says the persistent culture secrecy in public offices is the problem. 

The Commissioner in Charge of Monitoring, and Evaluation-of Local Governments in the Office of the Prime Minister, Gonzaga Mayanja said that while the Access to Information Laws have not worked as envisaged, the government has ensured that vital information is passed to citizens through barazas and other meetings. 

“The issue of information is a very sensitive one and what you are looking for. These are the things that we have been encountering. The good thing is that we have a starting point. By having an Access to Information Act in place is an indicator that the government is willing and all of us who are supporting the government. Those contradictions will go on being addressed. Before something is raised, you cannot know that there is a contradiction. We want to give out information so that they demand more.”  

What do citizens lose when they don’t have access to the information? 

Magelah Peter Gwayaka has been at the forefront of pushing for the implementation of the Access to Information Law. 

With the Sustainable Development Goals, all governments agreed to ensure public access to information for all by 2030. With open and free information, we can live in a world that is more fair, equal and transparent.

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Access to information is an instrumental right because it helps to facilitate citizen participation in decision making, hold public officials accountable, as well as to fight against corruption, defend civil liberties and guarantee freedom of expression. 

According to UNESCO, Uganda was among the first countries to enact the Access to Information laws. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the plan of action adopted by all UN Member States to protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, recognizes public access to the information within Goal 16 that covers the need to promote peaceful and inclusive societies.