Leveraging ICT to Promote the Right to Information in Uganda: Insights from Ask Your Government Portal

By Loyce Kyogabirwe |

Despite the existence of legal and regulatory frameworks that promote the right to information, access to public information remains a big challenge in Uganda. The potential of ICT to promote citizens’ access to information is widely acknowledged and in 2014, the government and civil society partners launched the Ask Your Government (AYG) web platform that allows citizens to make online information requests to government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).

However, four years on, it is evident that most citizens might not be aware of their right to information let alone the procedures for accessing information and data that is held by public bodies. Meanwhile, public officials continue to ignore citizens’ information requests despite efforts to equip both the duty bearers and rights holders, including information officers, journalists as well as women’s rights organisations,  with knowledge and skills on rights and responsibilities.

User statistics from the AYG portal show an increase in the number of requests as well as number of public agencies registered on the portal. Between 2014 and 2016, only 243 requests were submitted to 76 agencies. But by June 2018, the number of information requests submitted had reached 2,450, to 106 MDAs (20 Ministries, 60 Departments and Agencies and 26 to Local Government Officials).  

Use of Ask Your Gov Uganda Platform between 2013 and 2018

The highest number of information requests have been submitted to the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) –  350 between June 2014 and June 2018, followed by the Ministry of Defence with 152.

However, the nature of requests lodged still indicates a misinterpretation of what falls under a public information request as most of the submissions are related to internships and Tax Identification Numbers (TIN). Perhaps this is an indication of the priority information needs of many of the portal’s users.  

Also of concern is the low response rate to information requests. Of the 2,450 requests submitted between June 2014 and June 2018, only 121 have been indicated as successful and and 102 as partially successful, representing an average response rate of 9%.  Less than 1% of requests (20) were rejected while those still awaiting responses are 2,074 or 85%. The 85% can be regarded as refusals under section 18 of the Access to Information Act (ATIA), 2005 which states: “an information officer fails to give the decision on a request for access to the person concerned within the period contemplated under section 16, the information officer is, for the purposes of this Act, regarded as having refused the request.”  The response period is 21 days.

In some cases where public information was requested, users were advised to visit the respective MDAs in order to access such information. For example  Davidson Ndyabahika, a journalist working with Uganda Radio Network, requested for statistics of enrolment and performance of both private and public primary and secondary schools in Ntungamo District from 2010 to 2016 from the Ministry of Education and Sports. He was advised to physically visit the Ministry offices where he would be cleared first before accessing such information. Such a response  indicates challenges with digitised information storage and retrieval among public agencies although section 10 of the Act mandates information officers to ensure that records of a public body are accessible.

Equally, there are cases where limitations of the portal have emerged and information has been withheld because it can only be provided after payment of the statutory search fees. The ATIA specifies a non-refundable access fee of Uganda Shillings (UGX) 20,000 (USD 5) which remains a high cost for the majority of the population.

The limited levels of government responsiveness to information requests and uptake of AYG by both citizens and public officials impact upon initiatives working to promote access to public information for social accountability and civic engagement. This calls for more capacity enhancement, sensitisation and awareness raising among public officials of their duties and responsibilities as laid down in the Access to Information Act.  Likewise, MDAs ought to utilise the different ICT platforms and tools to proactively release public information as prescribed in the Act and make efforts to ensure that citizens are aware of such information and where to find it.

Under Section 7 of the Act, public bodies are mandated to compile manuals containing descriptions, addresses, the nature of work, services and how to access information within six months after the commencement of the Act. However, 13 years since the law was passed, only the Ministry of Lands and Urban Development has adhered to this requirement. Indeed the ministry was in 2015 awarded the most responsive public entity as part of commemoration of International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI).

Likewise, section 43 of the Act requires every minister to submit an annual report to Parliament on requests for records or access to information made to a public body under his or her ministry indicating acceptance or rejection, and reasons for rejection. However, there has never been any report from ministers since 2005 when the Law was passed, and Parliament has never demanded for such reports.

Meanwhile there should be efforts to continuously empower citizens to fully exercise their right of access to information as stated in Article 41 of the Constitution and Section 5 of the ATIA. Such efforts include capacity building of different demographic groups such as women, youth, persons with disabilities (PWDs), journalists, and teachers to demand for public information relating to service delivery and accountability while utilising different ICT platforms and tools including the AYG portal. Public officials should also be empowered to utilise these tools to proactively share public information with citizens.

The AYG is an initiative of the Ministry ICT and National Guidance in partnership with the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

CIPESA Advances the Digital Rights Debate at re:publica Accra

By Simone Toussi |

The first African edition of Europe’s largest internet and digital society festival – re:publica – was held in Accra, Ghana, December 14-15, 2018 and drew in hundreds of participants to showcase and discuss how politics, the arts, innovation, and digital rights have been affected by an increasingly digitised society.

Co-organised by Impact Hub Accra, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and with the support of several partners including the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), re:publica Accra aimed to strengthen Afro-German dialogue about digital issues, and to explore the intersection between digitalisation and collaborative developmental efforts.

CIPESA hosted a Digital Rights Lounge throughout the duration of re:publica, organised workshops on civic participation and online content regulation, and also participated in sessions on the work of investigative journalists and activists, among others.

The Digital Rights Lounge

To reflect its multi-disciplinary nature, re:publica Accra featured four lounges on health, digital creation, digital rights, and hardware innovation. CIPESA hosted the Digital Rights Lounge which featured organisations sharing experiences and showcasing work related to advancing digital rights in Africa.

The lounge featured an exhibition on the state of digital rights in Africa including visuals on press freedom, the gender dynamics of internet usage, access to information, data protection and privacy, affordability, non-discrimination, and network disruptions. This was complemented by research publications and videos on the ongoing efforts to engender progressive internet policies and practices that support human rights, innovation, and development.

Also presented at re:publica were key action areas that emerged from the 2018 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica), which was held in Accra, Ghana, at the end of September 2018. Since 2014, CIPESA has held this annual forum that brings together various stakeholders to deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities for advancing privacy, free expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online on the continent. Previous FIFAfrica editions have been held in Uganda (2014-2016) and South Africa (2017).

Sessions held around the lounge included conversations on involving more girls in tech, privacy challengesregulating emerging technologies, hands-on skills session on steganography, and online content creation. There was also a session on the work of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), which groups 30 governments who have committed to work together to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms online.

Advancing Civic Participation through Digital Technologies

Re:publica served as a platform to also share insights on the role of technology in social accountability, civic engagement, transparency and accountability, during a session titled ‘Advancing Civic Participation through Digital Technologies’. The session explored the opportunities and gaps in responsive solutions/platforms for civic participation and for transparency and accountability. Panellists presented cases studies on technology in governance including political mobilisation through print, broadcast and online media in Kenya; public finance tracking in Nigeria; parliamentary monitoring in Ghana; creating an enabling environment for civic technology in post-conflict Somalia; and service delivery monitoring and human rights reporting through ICT in East Africa.   

The session also interrogated how the legislative landscape affects access and infrastructure, cybercrime, and access to information; and how, content regulation and taxation in the respective countries weaken the potential of technology-based initiatives to advance democratisation.

Impact of Online Content Regulation on Digital Rights in Africa

In this session, panellists discussed the online content regulation landscape in Africa with a focus on countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, DR Congo, Burundi and Zambia which in 2018 proposed or passed laws and regulations that undermine freedom of expression and access to information online.

These controls are undermining public confidence in the use of online platforms, and could lead to self-censorship and complete withdrawal from online discourse by ordinary citizens and by vocal bloggers and other social media enthusiasts. They are also leading to arrests of some journalists and social media users, including those that express legitimate.

The session comprised digital rights experts and researchers from Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe who shared ideas on alternative approaches aimed at enhancing adoption and use of online platforms as well as content generation for advancing digital rights in Africa.

The panel noted that there was limited citizens’ consultations in coming up with the laws and regulations around internet control and online content regulation, and stressed the need for campaigns to have internet regulation that promotes individuals’ rights and livelihoods and not just the narrow interests of powerful actors such as governments and ruling party officials.

However, for such campaigns to work, it is crucial for civil society and other actors to conduct research to generate evidence to inform advocacy and decision-making; and to proactively offer alternative positions to governments rather than only offering criticism. In addition, the need to involve more actors in promoting digital rights – not least traditional human rights organisations, women’s rights organisations, and private sector actors – was emphasised. The need for digital security training and digital literary campaigns, and for increased use of tools of anonymisation and circumvention tools, was also emphasised.

With the support of the Germany international cooperation agency GIZ, CIPESA enabled the participation at re:publica of 13 individuals from 10 African countries.

How Nigeria and Uganda are Faring on the Right to Information

By Tomiwa Ilori |

Transparency and accountability in governance are key tenets of participatory democracy. To this end, Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce a right to information (RTI) law back in 1766. Finland followed in 1919, and to-date, over 100 countries across the world have enacted laws that give citizens the right to access information in the hands of government.

In Africa, 21 countries have passed Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, while 16 have proposed laws. Most countries have constitutional provisions for the right to information, pursuant to obligations under various international and regional instruments. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression. A model law on access to information for Africa was prepared by the African Commission to serve as a template and encourage more countries to adopt legislation embodying international, regional, and sub-regional standards.

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Reflection: Government Responsiveness in The Age of ICTs

By Nasubo Ongoma |

On this post, I will share key insights from our research on Government responsiveness in the Age of ICTs.

In 2013, the Kenyan government started an ambitious plan to digitise public services by adopting ICTs. On paper, the setup is perfect for democracy to be upheld, we read digital strategies and guides that would transform Kenya into a digital nation. Democracy calls for responsiveness from all stakeholders, manifesting in two way communication. Is this the case on all the digital platforms? Ourresearch question was, how has Kenya fared over the years after the adoption of digital tools?

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Bridging the Digital Divide: Internet User Journey

By Nasubo Ongoma |

Digital divide is mostly linked with access, the means to bring more people online. The Merriam Webster dictionarydefines it as “the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not”. To bridge the gap, requires a proper interpretation of what it means to go online and what prevents one from going online. Economic inequalities involves the cost of access, devices used, pricing and network availability. Educational inequalities are the skills needed to go online and how to communicate it. Social inequality entails how different populations differ in their ideologies. According to ITU, there are several factors to consider to bridge the digital divide, 1) readiness in terms of the network infrastructure, 2) intensity, measuring the level of ICT usage and 3) impact, which are results and outcomes.

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Reimagining iTax – Key Findings and Outcomes of the Design Sprint

By Kennedy Kirui |

With that done, we called it a day.

Tuesday 17th – Generating solutions

We kicked off the second day of the sprint by reviewing the activities from the previous day. From this, we quickly realized we couldn’t solve the four problems we had identified during the sprint. The first exercise was to decide on the challenge to focus on for the remainder of the sprint. Using the voting dots, each participant selected a challenge they felt if solved would have the most impact. With just one voting round, we identified iTax’s usability as an issue that would be tackled during the sprint.

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