Despite its early adoption of the Access to Information Act in 2005, Uganda continues to struggle with its effective implementation, according to a recent study commissioned by the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda (ACCU). Conducted by Dr Dan Ngabirano, the report reveals a persistent gap between law and practice that could undermine the country’s fight against corruption.
Uganda grapples with corruption, ranking 142 out of 180 countries in the latest Transparency International Global Corruption Perception Index. While the country has various legislative tools to tackle corruption, they often remain ineffective, especially against high-ranking corruption.
The study underscores the critical importance of unobstructed access to information as a tool for citizens to hold leaders accountable and engage meaningfully in government. The assessment paints a dismal picture of the law’s implementation. Ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) are often unresponsive to information requests and generally fail to meet their legal obligations, such as compiling a manual of functions and index of records.
Even more failure by most government ministries to submit annual reports to parliament, detailing the number of information access requests they received. One of the study’s salient points is the Act’s extensive and often unjustified regime of exemptions, limiting citizens’ right to information.
ACCU’s recommendations include amending the law to define the roles of communication officers clearly, making decisions of communication officers appealable to chief executives, and ensuring ministerial compliance with the obligation to present annual reports to Parliament. The report also advocates for the repeal of restrictive laws that unjustifiably limit citizens’ access to information.
SHS 20 TRILLION
The 2021 Inspectorate of Government Integrity Survey reveals that Uganda loses over Shs 20 trillion annually due to corruption-related practices. In addition, according to the Ask Your Government portal, as of July 1, 2023, only 818 out of 12,605 information requests were successfully processed. A staggering 11,477 requests remain unresolved.
The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) had the highest number of requests with 705. Out of these, 164 were successfully addressed,
41 were turned down, and 500 are still pending. On the other hand, the Inspectorate of Government (IGG) had a relatively high success rate of 31 percent for its information requests.
However, the IGG, along with the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) and the Uganda Media Centre, received the fewest number of requests. Surprisingly, the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, the ministry of Local Government, and the Uganda Media Centre had no successful requests at all.
The Anti-Corruption Coalition’s report pointed out that the Office of the Inspectorate of Government is notably among the Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) that often use technicalities to deny citizens’ right to access information.
In earlier years, the Inspectorate of Government denied multiple requests for information related to wealth declarations by prominent public officials. The denial was based on the lack of a statutory form to request such information. This policy was legally challenged by the Hub for Investigative Media, a civil society organization that had been denied access to wealth declarations submitted by permanent secretaries across various MDAs.
It took over 11 years to amend the law to include a statutory format that the public could use to request access to wealth declarations. Even with the newly prescribed form, interviews with various civil society organizations indicate that the Inspector General of Government retains wide discretionary power over whether to grant access to such information.
“...Requests for access to wealth declarations are often denied on the grounds that they are not made in good faith. This was confirmed in an interview with an official from the Inspectorate of Government, who stated that the information in these declarations is confidential and can only be disclosed to other investigative agencies. The official further noted that most of those seeking this information do so with questionable motives, prompting the Inspectorate to generally deny access,” reads a portion of the report.
When questioned about any instances where a request to access information in wealth declarations had been approved by the Inspectorate, the official confirmed there were none.
The Anti-Corruption Coalition’s effort to file a formal access-to-information request with the Inspectorate was stymied by registry officials. They insisted that they would only accept the request if accompanied by a cover letter outlining, among other things, the reasons for needing the information. Notably, the request was made in the format prescribed by the Access to Information Act.
The report reveals that citizens tend to use social media and other user-friendly platforms established by various MDAs to request the information they need. Notably, platforms like the e-citizen portal, the Government Citizen Interaction Centre (GCIC) call center, and Twitter accounts managed by the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs are among those most frequently used by citizens to seek information from public bodies.
“The type of information requested through these platforms is generally basic. Only on rare occasions do citizens request more sensitive details related to the functioning of the MDAs. This undermines the law’s intent to hold public officials accountable and to foster efficient and effective governance,” the report indicates.
Additionally, the report suggests that the government should consider establishing a dedicated agency for enforcing and monitoring compliance with the Access to Information Act. This would be coupled with enhanced penalties for noncompliance and increased funding for both the Act’s implementation and the creation of public awareness on the right to information.
This comprehensive assessment serves as a stark reminder that Uganda’s government and civil society need to redouble their efforts to fully realize the Access to Information Act’s potential for fostering transparency and good governance.
The report, which also outlines the current status of the Access to Information Act 2005, reveals a troubling gap between policy and practice in Uganda. While the government and its various MDAs have been slow to fully embrace the mandates of the Act, the parliament and civil society organizations also have roles to play in making the law effective, according to the study.
A key concern is that ministerial compliance with Section 42 of the Act, requiring the submission of an annual report to parliament, has been poor. Parliament is now being urged to make this compliance a precondition for the approval of ministerial statements. Furthermore, the ICT committee of parliament is encouraged to hold non-compliant MDAs accountable, especially those failing to develop a Manual of Functions and Index of Records.
The MDAs themselves are urged to publish these manuals and invest in the training of officials on the importance of citizens’ right to access information. The report also calls for routine publication of categories of records that are automatically available, without requiring a formal request under the Act.
In addition to updating and maintaining organizational websites for accuracy and timeliness, the report strongly recommends that these platforms be accessible to persons with disabilities (PWDs).
Moreover, leveraging local radio stations for disseminating public information is cited as crucial, especially for rural populations reliant on these outlets and primarily speakers of local languages. Civil society organizations (CSOs) are not left out of the call for action. The report calls on CSOs to amplify their efforts in raising public awareness regarding citizens’ rights to access public information.
Collaboration with different MDAs is considered pivotal for the collective promotion of this right. Additionally, the report advocates for amendments to the existing Act to limit current restrictions and establish a dedicated agency for overseeing its implementation.
One groundbreaking recommendation includes the translation of the Constitution of Uganda and the Access to Information Act into local languages and providing sign language interpretation services for persons with speech and hearing impairments, to make the right to information inclusive and accessible to all.
With these proposed changes, the report underscores the need for an all-encompassing and consultative approach to implementing
the Access to Information Act effectively. Only through such a collaborative and comprehensive effort can Uganda hope to improve transparency, accountability, and ultimately, the fight against corruption.
REACTIONS TO THE REPORT
Amid growing concerns about the effectiveness of Uganda’s Access to Information Act 2005, Gilbert Sendugwa, the executive director of the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, calls attention to the barriers hindering the law’s full implementation. He stresses that citizens’ access to information is crucial for both participatory governance and combating corruption.
According to Sendugwa, access to information empowers citizens to participate in government decision-making processes and hold officials accountable.
“When people have the information, they can inform the government on how best to allocate resources for communal benefits and development,” he said.
However, the Act faces challenges due to the lack of compliance by governmental agencies.
“Agencies are not fulfilling their proactive disclosure obligations. They also fail to respond adequately to information requests,” Sendugwa revealed. He cited a recent experience with the National Medical Stores: “We were told we had to pay Shs 10 million for them to search for a record they had archived. This appeared to be a ploy to deny us access to information.”
Sendugwa expressed concern about the culture of impunity among public officials.
“The law criminalizes the destruction, falsification, and wrongful disclosure of records but lacks sanctions for failure to disclose information,” he noted. He believes that the reluctance to disclose information often stems from questionable decision-making and spending practices within the agencies.
Moreover, Sendugwa criticized the practice of government agencies spending millions to advertise in newspapers. “The information
they disseminate this way is what they want the public to know. It sometimes presents a distorted image that does not reflect the actual state of affairs in these agencies,” he said.
The ongoing lack of compliance with the Act raises questions about the government’s commitment to transparency and citizen participation. “The culture of non-disclosure is not a sign of propriety. Often, it’s a smokescreen for questionable activities,” Sendugwa concluded.
Munira Ali, the spokesperson for the Inspectorate of Government, stated that they have not yet received the report in question.
“I haven’t read the report. I need to consult with other colleagues who were involved at the directorate level, as well as understand the context in which the report was authored. Only then will I be able to respond,” she said.
Moses Watasa, the Public relations manager at the ministry of ICT, emphasized that government agencies should provide any information that is permissible under the law, unless it falls under non-permissible categories.
“The ministry of ICT is in the process of developing a comprehensive policy that will require government agencies to disseminate information not only to the media but also to the public at large,” Watasa stated.
“People have a right to understand government policies, programs, priorities, and projects because everything the government does is on behalf of Ugandans.”
He further said that the proposed policy aims to intensify internal sensitization within the government. “Agencies shouldn’t only be compelled by law to share information. As the communication arm of the government, our role is to coordinate and ensure that government agencies are transparent about their activities. Under the new policy, we will lay out the procedures for how agencies should release information.”
Watasa also warned of consequences for non-compliance. “We are proposing administrative sanctions for agencies that fail to comply with sharing information with the public,” he concluded.