Sanyu has been experiencing difficulties with breathing over the past few weeks. Although the air in Kampala is always full of dust in January, people are saying that air pollution has surged over the past few weeks as a result of the switching-on of new traffic lights. Sanyu would like to know what is true of these rumours and searches the internet.
Although it appears the Ministry of Health does regular inspections of the air quality in Kampala, Sanyu is unable to find any information online. Sanyu gives a call to the Ministry of Health, but they are not very friendly. Although the Ministry confirms the information exists, they tell Sanyu that they do not want to give her the information. In any case, they say, she could only obtain the information in paper form at their offices in Gulu and she would have to pay UGX 50.000.
Sanyu is confused and doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t she have a right to access the information collected by the Ministry? And can the Ministry charge her for accessing the information?
1.Access to government information in Uganda
With the growing use of information and communications technology, the value of information has increased significantly. However, it is now often recognised that information held by government organisations is public information that should be accessible to the public. Citizens, businesses and civil society organisations are constantly pressuring government organisations to provide better access to information and emulate many countries that have enacted legislation which provides for a right for access to information.
In 2014, the Ugandan government published the Ask Your Government (AYK) website to facilitate requests for government information to help citizens get information they want from public authorities. Citizens can use the website to make requests and previous requests are stored on the website for further reference. Since 2014 more than 1200 requests have been made.
2.The legal framework
The right to seek, receive and impart information is recognised as a human right in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1969 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. At a regional level, the 1986 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, also ratified by Uganda, acknowledges that every individual has the right to receive information.
The 1995 Constitution of Uganda also provides for the right to access information held by a government organisation, although information that would affect the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person are exempted.
In 2005, the Parliament adopted the Access to Information Act to implement citizens’ right to access information held by a government organisations. Further Regulations were adopted in 2011 to clarify procedures and provide for access to information in electronic form.
2.1 Is there information that is an exception to the rule?
In principle, the right of access to information in Uganda covers all information held by government bodies and agencies. Nevertheless, certain types of information or information held by certain government bodies are exempted where access to that information could infringe on other important interests.
For example, records held by Cabinet, information related to someone’s health or information that could infringe on a person’s right to privacy, endanger the national security of Uganda or commercial information provided by a third party are exempted from the right to access to information.
2.2 Procedures for making a request
When making a request for access to information, one has to follow certain procedures. One must comply with certain conditions, including amongst other things that certain forms have to be used.
A government body also has obligations and has to put in place procedures to facilitate the handling of requests. Any person that wants to make a request is entitled to receive support from the government body to facilitate the request, and in principle a request has to be processed within a period of 21 days.
Every government body should have an information officer that is responsible for following these procedures. The information officer has to make available information on these procedures. The officer also is responsible for making available information on what can be accessed by the public without the need to make a request.
2.3 Forms of requests and format of the information
A government body may provide electronic forms that can be used by citizens to make requests for information. In addition, persons have a right to make requests in electronic form, e.g. by e-mail.
One may make a request for information may specify the format in which they would like to receive the information. One may also ask for the information to be made available in electronic format, and even in a format that is machine-readable. Where the information is not available in the requested format, a public body has to consider the possible conversion of the information to the format requested.
3. What Sanyu should do
The information on the air quality in Kampala that is collected by the Ministry of Health qualifies as government information. Therefore, Sanyu in principle has a right to access that information.
The Ministry of Health is obliged to have an information officer who Sanyu can contact in order to gain knowledge on which procedures should be followed to retrieve the information she requested. The information officer should also provide Sanyu with support to facilitate the request. Sanyu has a right to make the request in electronic form and may also ask the Ministry of Health to provide her with the information in an electronic format.
The Ministry of Health is obliged to consider Sanyu’s request, but may refuse if another important interest would be affected by the disclosure of the information. The Ministry should also consider whether the information can be made available in electronic form, but may refuse, e.g. where that is found too difficult or too expensive. If the Ministry of Health agrees to disclose the information, they may determine a fee that Sanyu would have to pay.
In case the Ministry of Health decides not to disclose the information, Sanyu can lodge a complaint with a Chief Magistrate Court.
4. Your experience and feedback
Are you a citizen that wants to make use of the right of access to information?
Or have you already made a request for government-held information?
- Have you ever experienced legal issues with this? Please contact us and share your experience with us!