Uganda's Access to Information Act was passed in 2005 but local officials often know little about it. A workshop organized by the Hub for Investigative Media and DW Akademie pointed to their responsibilities.
Training local officials on the one hand and civil society on the other hand in order to improve the implementation of Uganda's Access to Information Act
There is a Ugandan way of cutting through government red tape: find a friend who is a relative or an in-law of someone who's 'big' in government; size him or her up and determine how much 'facilitation' (bribe) he or she will need to introduce you to an important person.
That's the long way around.
The shorter and more direct route is to find the attendant of an office where you need something done; bribe him or her accordingly, and before you know it, your file will move from the bottom of the in-box up to a position reflecting the bribe.
The three-day workshop "Access to Information for Local Officials and Information Officers" was held September 19 - 21, 2016 in Gulu, the regional capital of northern Uganda. There I learned that this Ugandan approach may soon be something of the past, much to the detriment of some 'big' people in government and 'small' office attendants.
That's thanks to the efforts of the Hub for Investigative Media (HIM), a small organization with an eclectic set of laid back but dogged staff bent on ensuring that central local governments in Uganda apply and adhere to the dictates of the Access to Information Act (ATIA). The organization has done a number of workshops in eastern, western and northern Uganda on the ATIA for local government officials. A total of 30 local government officials have already been trained by HIM in Gulu, Masaka and Mbale. For some of the local chief administrative officers and district information officers attending the workshops, this was the first time that they had heard of the ATIA.
"Training local governments in how to provide the information being sought [is the] supply side," explained Edward Sekyewa, founder of the Hub for Investigative Media (HIM) at the workshop. The next step is to train civil society in how to seek information, he said, referring to it as the demand side. HIM's mission is now to get as many people as possible acquainted with, and use, this powerful tool.
The Access to Information Act
Ahead of the workshops, HIM was invited to visit the Office of the Prime Minister where it expressed appreciation for HIM training local government officials on the ATIA. Officials said that although it was their job to do this, a lack of resources had prevented them from doing so.
The Act has been gathering dust since 2005 when it was passed by the ruling party. Norbert Mao, now President General of the opposition Democratic Party, spoke at the workshop and was one of the legislators who enacted the law 11 years ago. "It took a lot of lobbying for us to get the ruling party to accept it as useful to our democratic development," Mao said.
The law is part of the country's 1995 constitution that gives every citizen the right to access information. The ATIA stipulates the type of information that can be requested and the procedures that need to be followed. Anyone, for example, can request information or record of public interest by filling out an official form. The institution then has 21 days to respond. If it does not, the request is deemed denied.
In 2013 Edward Sekyewa discovered that although this powerful law gives the media the power to promote freedom of information, no one in Uganda was using it. HIM has since proved to be a thorn in the side of Uganda's central and local governments and has filed hundreds of information requests. Of these, only 15 per cent have yielded the requisite information.
Enshrining the right to access information
Norbert Mao praised the HIM initiative, saying it had come at the right time and was a major milestone for getting much-needed information to the public. Information, he said, was often covered up to protect the interests of just a few. "What do people really need?" asked Mao rhetorically. "It's not much more than the information that will solve their day-to-day problems such as 'I have a plot and I don't know how to get the title deed'," he said. He added that people often need someone who can show them how to apply for information without paying a bribe.Mao called on the local government officials present at the workshop to act as catalysts, supplying the information needed and properly keeping records that can be requested.
In a country bedeviled by institutionalized corruption, enshrining the right to access information held by the government means creating, maintaining and retrieving records. In the absence of a records management system, corruption thrives and decision-making is ill-informed.
Michael Tebere is a former journalist and currently the Senior Governance Technical Advisor with the Ugandan Governance Accountability Participation and Performance (GAPP) program.