A new survey commissioned by Twaweza Uganda shows that majority of the Ugandan citizens interviewed believe strongly in their right to access government information, with the 77 per cent of the interviewees saying that information held by public authorities is a public resource that should be availed to them without any hindrance whenever they want it.
The research findings also show that 78 per cent of the respondents think citizens should be able to access information from government on; expenditure on public services (47 per cent), jobs available in government (14 per cent, money disbursed to district government (7 per cent), development/procurement plans (4 per cent).
The findings are found in the research brief shared by Twaweza Uganda on Friday to mark the International Right to Know Day. The brief is titled Access to Information: unlocking the flow, fulfilling the potential.
The research recognises Article 41 of the Ugandan Constitution which stipulates that: “Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the state or nay other organ or agency of the state.”
However, the information may not be released to those who require it where it likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the state or interfere with the right of privacy of any person.
Despite strong support and desire to access information, citizens think it is hard to get. For instance, 90 per cent of citizens say it would be difficult or impossible to get information from government on the development budget. 85 per cent and 85 per cent say it would be difficult or impossible to get information on agriculture and school exam performance rankings, respectively.
However, majority say information on construction plans would be easier to come by, much as 47 per cent think that it would be difficult or impossible to do so. Not knowing where to look for this information (45 per cent) and long travel distance (32 per cent) are the main reasons given for the challenges.
The data also shows that citizens’ experiences resonate with institutions or professionals who seek information. The AskYourGov.ug website (76 per cent) and the Hub for Investigative Media (62 per cent) both show that the majority of requests in in between 2013 and 2015 are marked as pending (not yet responded to. One out of five requests or 21 per cent on AskYourGov.ug was successful.
There is concern that government institutions seemed to use different tactics to avoid fulfillment of access to information requests. For instance, providing incomplete outdated data, treating requesters with suspicion or hostility, and delaying or dismissing requests for no reason.
While seeking for information, data shows that 100 per cent prefer physical visits while 71 per cent prefer the use of phones. Other means of communication like the internet are used by less than 1 out of 10 Ugandans interviewed.
When it comes to their main source of information from government, 75 per cent of citizens unequivocally chose radio, followed by community meetings at 32 per cent.
To remove the blockages to information, citizens think government should use channels that they use, make information proactively available and accessible, promote its availability rather than waiting for citizens to request it and training all government personnel on the Access to Information Law.
Other obstacles as identified by Twaweza’s review of available literature are: That citizens have strong tendencies towards relying on the word of mouth as a resource rather than directly seeking the relevant information. There is also a fear of and deference to authority.
The findings reveal that citizens may also not be motivated to seek government information in the face of more pressing concerns around life necessities. But the Shs20, 000 cost of filling a request and low access to internet may also place practical constraints in their way.
On the government side, there are a number of laws that run counter to the spirit of the access to information law including the Evidence Act, the Official Secrets Act and some parts of the Penal Code. In addition, there seems to be a general attitude of secrecy and the fear of releasing “the wrong thing.” General restrictions on some political rights and concentrated ownership of the media outlets all play a role in restricting citizens’ access to information.
Ms Viola Alinda, Advocacy Manager at Twaweza: “Uganda is a regional champion in terms of financial transparency and our access to information law has been around for much longer than those of our peers. Yet in reality citizens are not easily able to actualize their right to information. Although some of the obstacles are entrenched and may take time to change, there are some more straight forward practical steps the government can take to address the gap between policy and practice.”
If citizens are to access information as they should, the report argues that there should be a concerted effort to allow proactive information sharing from local authorities, especially via radio and community meetings. “This makes some information available as a default and sends a signal that government business is open for scrutiny,”Ms Alinda says.
More so, it is recommended that officials in local authorities need to be trained and sensitised on the law and their responsibility in sharing information. “This again send an important signal to public servants and citizens as well as well as overcoming officials’
knowledge gaps about this law. And that instead of the Shs200, 000 request fee, seekers of information should only pay for reproduction costs like photocopying fees.
When the above recommendations are done, researchers say, they will go a long way to ensuing Ugandans can enjoy their constitutional legal right to information.