Journalists in Gulu demand a government review of laws and public service regulations that hamper the operationalization of the Access to Information Act.
Although the Ugandan parliament passed the Access to Information Act five years ago, journalists in Gulu say the failure to operationalized it and the existence of laws that stifle its provisions are greatly hampering their work.
They say they are unable to fully play their role as the government watchdog and cannot hold public servants and elected officials accountable for their actions.
The Access to Information Act provides a legal forum through with journalists and other members of the public can obtain detailed information regarding public expenditure and government activity. The right to obtain and publicize government records is deemed essential for the operation of a transparent, accountable state.
Sam Oboke, a freelance journalist, says public officers are aware of the loopholes in the Access to Information Act through which they can renege on their responsibility to release sensitive documents. He says even when he seeks permission for non-sensitive information from the Chief Administrative Officer he rarely receives a response.
The Uganda Local Governments Association is in Gulu this week to educate public officers on their duty to uphold the law.
Charles Opolot, spokesperson of the association, says they are keen to support the review the legal provisions governing the access to information. He explained that such an effort would help local governments improve their efficiency.
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However the journalists demand for more than advocacy to compel local officials to abide by the law.
They want regulations like the Uganda Public Service Standing Orders on Dissemination of Information repealed. The standing order restricts local government officers from providing information except through Chief Administrative Officers. The Chief Administrative Officers often use this to deny journalists vital information about public spending.
The Gulu journalists are also concerned about provisions with the Access to Information Act that seem to make it even harder to receive information on time.
For instance, the law provides that one has to wait for 30 days for a response on a request to be granted. If the information is denied, another 30-day waiting period is given for appeal to the Inspector General of Government and a further month before an appeal can be made to the High Court to compel the release of the information.
The Gulu Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, Bernard Ogwang, says he recognizes the bureaucracy involved. However he says he cannot do anything about it because of the standing order that restricts him from personally disseminating information.
Martin Ojara, the LC5 chairman-elect of Gulu, says that once he assumes office, he will actively call for the law to be operationalized. He notes that the media played a vital role in advocating and end to the insurgency in northern Uganda and they should be treated as partners.
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Moses Odokonyero, chairman of the Northern Uganda Media Club, says his association has started to advocate for a review of the law. He says it begun its work over the weekend with an open and frank discussion with local leaders in the region and hopes to reach more people with time.
access to information act
freedom of information