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90% of information requests are denied by government – Agaba

Marion Agaba

Marion Agaba

Last month, the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda published a report criticizing ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) for their refusal to disclose information upon request from various individuals and civil society organizations (CSOs).

The Observer spoke with Marlon Agaba, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU), to discuss the motivations behind the recently released report.

Why did you author this report; was there a gap?

We have been monitoring the implementation of anti-corruption laws in the country. Previously, we assessed the implementation of the Anti-Corruption Act, the Whistleblowers Act, and the Leadership Code Act.

What motivated us is the realization that while we have been enacting laws in this country, our primary weakness has been in their implementation. Therefore, we wanted to understand the extent to which these laws have been implemented and identify the loopholes that have hindered their effective enforcement.

What laws have you assessed?

We have evaluated the Access to Information Act of 2005 and the Access to Information Regulations of 2011, in addition to other laws, because citizens cannot effectively combat corruption without access to information. Having access to information is crucial if they are to be actively involved in fighting corruption.

Are there gaps in the laws?

There are significant gaps and technicalities in the implementation of these laws. For example, the Access to Information Act mandates the release of information based on a specific form outlined in the regulations, and it requires individuals to state why they need the information.

These technicalities have been used as a basis to deny people access to information, leading to a decline in information requests. Another issue is the role of the information officer, as designated by the Act, which is often assigned to accounting officers. These officers are generally preoccupied with other responsibilities and often delegate the task to subordinates who lack the authority or willingness to release information.

As a result, people don’t get the information they need. There’s also a longstanding culture of secrecy within our public service, dating back to colonial times. This is compounded by laws like the Official Secrets Act of 1964, which require public servants to take oaths not to disclose public information. Such laws hinder the effective implementation of access to information.

Furthermore, public awareness of the law is limited. Many citizens are unaware that they can request information and are entitled to receive it. Lastly, the costs associated with accessing information are prohibitive. The charge is  Shs 100 per A4 page, making it expensive for ordinary Ugandans to access large volumes of information. The challenges are indeed numerous.

Who did you engage in government agencies?

The agencies were interviewed to provide their perspectives, and their comments have been included in the report. While I cannot mention each agency specifically to protect our sources, what I can say is that a staggering 90 percent of information requests are being denied across various agencies.

Only 6.5 percent have been successful. This has led to apathy among citizens, who now believe that making a request is futile since they are unlikely to receive the information they seek.

In particular, the Inspectorate of Government has not been forthcoming with the declarations of wealth that Ugandans have been requesting. This is especially ironic given that the same Inspectorate advocates for citizen involvement in the fight against corruption.

How can citizens engage effectively without access to pertinent information?

Corruption flourishes in secrecy; without access to information, combating corruption becomes virtually impossible.

What informs the denial of information requests?

The culture of secrecy in public service has deep historical roots, dating back to colonial times. This tradition has persisted, even affecting the release of basic information such as work plans and other activities.

The issue fundamentally comes down to lack of will to disclose information. If there was genuine willingness to be transparent, there would be no reason to withhold such information from the public.

You have released the report, what is your next step?

We plan to engage with other stakeholders involved in this issue. We will launch a media campaign encouraging the public to request information and will publish some of our recommendations to ensure they reach the appropriate stakeholders for action. We also plan to hold engagement meetings to explore potential solutions to the challenges we’ve identified.

We recognize that achieving greater transparency is a long-term endeavor, not something that can be accomplished overnight. Our efforts will build on existing initiatives, aiming for a future with much more open disclosure of information.

What should the government do to promote access to information?

The government needs to align its actions with the international frameworks it has signed, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes access to information as a fundamental right.

Despite having a constitution that protects this right under Article 41, and having enacted the Access to Information Act in 2005 along with regulations in 2011, there are still barriers to accessing information.

The responsibility for releasing information should be delegated to communications officers. The Ministry of ICT has already coordinated the establishment of communications units within ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs), and these units should be empowered to release information rather than leaving this task to busy accounting officers.

Making information easily accessible on social media and websites would also benefit the public. The government should address existing weaknesses in the law, ensure that these units are functional, and raise public awareness about the law. By doing so, citizens will be better positioned to utilize the information they obtain.

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