Harriet Bibangambah, a Research Officer at Greenwatch Uganda, also contributed to this post.
Uganda is one of only 10 African countries with a national access to information (ATI) law. These types of laws are essential to human rights, providing citizens with legal access to the government-held information that directly impacts them—information on issues like mining permits, logging concessions, air quality data, and more. But as researchers are learning, ATI laws on the books do not necessarily guarantee freedom of information.
Uganda passed its Access to Information Act in 2005, releasing an implementation plan and ATI regulations in 2011. The regulations establish procedures for citizens to request government-held information and for the government to respond to citizen requests. WRI and Greenwatch, a Ugandan environmental law and advocacy organization set out in August 2011 to investigate how the law works.
Greenwatch requested information from the National Forestry Authority (NFA), a government institution responsible for managing Uganda’s Central Forest Reserves. A staff member submitted a request form for information on forest concessions—including a map of the licensed areas, copies of concession agreements, government revenues, and the number of people displaced by concessions. Government officials then asked the staff to write a letter to the NFA’s Executive Director about why she wanted the information, even though the ATI law does not require the reason to be disclosed.
What Is the Access to Information in Africa Project?
The Access to Information (ATI) in Africa project is an initiative of the World Resources Institute in partnership with the Center for Democratic Development (CDD) in Ghana, Greenwatch in Uganda, and the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) in South Africa. The overall goal of the ATI in Africa project is to better understand transparency models and environmental approaches to accountability in Africa, and to inform policymakers and citizen groups engaged in building the infrastructure for greater transparency. The project’s research includes a series of citizen requests for information in each of the three countries. An ordinary citizen, and NGO representative, a journalist and a student would all try their chances at receiving various types of information from various government agencies.
After the first attempt went unanswered, another Greenwatch staff member sought the same information. Officials referred him to a few different departments before instructing him to submit a standard request form. The NFA again asked for a letter to the Executive Director. Greenwatch followed up multiple times after submitting the letter, but did not receive an answer.
Greenwatch then tried again—this time, sending an ordinary citizen rather than an NGO researcher. Officials directed the citizen to multiple NFA officials before two of them questioned him about why he needed the information, threatened to arrest him, and called security. When the citizen explained that he sought the information on behalf of Greenwatch, officials confiscated his identity card and mobile phone and brought him to Greenwatch’s offices. After Greenwatch explained the aims of the research, the NFA officials returned the requestor’s items and released him. They still refused to provide the information, arguing that they do not give out information that could be “misused.”
Improving Access to Information in Africa
The experience of these individuals shows that despite Uganda’s ATI law and regulations, obtaining government-held information can still be a subjective and inconsistent process. All of the Greenwatch requesters were ultimately denied the information they sought from NFA.
Uganda’s experience with spotty implementation of its ATI law is not unique in Africa. In 2003, Open Society Institute (OSI)’s Justice Initiative conducted a similar study. The organization found that of 496 requests for information filed in five countries, fewer than 36 percent actually received the information.
While it is encouraging that a growing number of African countries are enacting ATI laws, there’s a key lesson to learn from the experience of Uganda and others: Getting a law on the books is just the first step in the process to ensuring freedom of information. ATI law implementation is complex—governments must be politically and financially committed to making their ATI laws work for their citizens. Plus, policymakers must possess the know-how to engage citizens and build the infrastructure for greater government transparency.
Access to Information in Africa and other organizations are researching and disseminating information on government transparency models. By fostering a greater understanding of effective governance, we can help ensure that access to information laws achieve their intended goals: improving citizens’ rights and their overall quality of life.