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Freedom of information laws struggle to take hold in Africa

Monitor reporter Angelo Izama, right, went through the courts to gain access to government documents and was denied. (Monitor)

In Uganda, a ruling this week in a landmark case of two journalists seeking to compel their government’s disclosure of multinationals oil deals highlighted the challenges to public transparency just before media leaders, press freedom advocates, officials, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter gather in Ghana next week at the African Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information.

Senior reporter Angelo Izama and Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi of Uganda’s leading independent newspaper Monitor filed the case to appeal the refusal of Uganda’s attorney general to provide them with certified copies of oil exploitation agreements—because of alleged confidentiality clauses in the documents—according to news reports. The journalists argued that the information was of public interest: Ugandans must be able to hold the government and its partners accountable for the exploitation of the oil.

However, Chief Magistrate Deo Ssejjemba said in his ruling that the petitioners had not proved either of the public benefit of disclosing the information to the public, according to news reports. The journalists, along with their partners the Open Society Institute’s East Africa Initiative and Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET), said they were considering appealing the ruling.

The case was originally filed by lawyer and Member of Parliament Abdu Katuntu under Uganda’s Access to Information Act, a legislation he introduced in 2005. Patrick Tumwine of HURINET told CPJ a local coalition of civil society organizations has been raising awareness about the law. More than 50 percent of Ugandans requesting information about resources allocations, local government affairs, or cases with security agencies get turned down, he said.

Freedom to information is enshrined as a fundamental human right by the United Nations, and upheld by the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa explicitly states: “Public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information, subject only to clearly defined rules established by law.” However, to this date, only five countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Angola) have passed freedom of information legislation, according to Mukelani Dimba, the deputy chief executive officer of the South Africa-based Open Democracy Advice Centre and an expert on the topic.

Progress in the enactment of such legislation remains sluggish, even stalled for a dozen countries that have crafted draft bills. In Mozambique for instance, parliament has yet to table a draft bill presented by a platform of civil society organizations since November 2005, Alfredo Libombo, who heads the Mozambican branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa told CPJ. The same is true in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania, according to Dimba, while legislative chambers in Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zambia have struggled to push through tabled draft bills.

Even the handful of countries with legislation in place have mightily struggled to translate their laws into meaningful reality. For instance, Zimbabwe’s deceptively named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act has almost invariably been used to censor the press.

Dimba said he was aware of only two cases where the law was used for freedom of information purposes. Ethiopia passed its legislation—within a package of laws effectively criminalizing independent journalism—but has a long way to go towards a culture of transparency and openness. Ethiopian editor Dawit Kebede told CPJ, there had been some improvements with the establishment of a Government Communications Office. However, fear of government reprisals has led many designated communications officers at public agencies to decline to comment without the consent of their superiors, he explained. Even South Africa, recognized as a model of implementation, has struggled to make the progressive ideals of its legislation a reality, according to Dimba. “Only 40 percent of requests for information in SA are processed and attended to in terms of the law,” he said. “The rest are simply ignored.”

All these issues will surely be discussed by the “more than 125 persons from 40 countries” expected during the Feb 7-9 conference, organized by the Carter Center in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where, just last month, hundreds of journalists and activists organized a protest march in response to parliament’s delay in passing “Right to Information” legislation.

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Comments

Good work Mr.Keita for this article on the difficulties that journalists face in getting access to information on matters of vital concern to citizens such as those in Uganda.

Journalists in Uganda are facing serious repression. Radio stations are closed frequently, journalists are afraid to publish freely anything critical of the Government. They face expensive law suits, torture and intimidation, prison, closure of their papers...And this of course is worse in this year leading up to elections. The government wishes to deny the Opposition any forum for disseminating information about their platforms and programs.

Thank you Mr.Keita for the insightful exposure.The Ugandan case is just an eye-opener as similar cases are now coming up on a daily basis in neighboring Kenya,my country.I am a journalist with the Standard newspaper in Kenya and i understand what my colleagues are going through in Uganda because i have been through similar treatment.We have new laws that the Kenyan Government put in place early this year to force us reveal sources of our information,on top of the Government being able to read and disseminate our information before it is published.We urge the world not to just look at us.Please come to our aid.We need you now,more than ever before.Mr.Keita,be blessed.

Mr Keita and colleagues at CPJ

I salute you for your excellent work of advocating for the press freedom and freedom of expression in Africa.

Like in most of Africa, independent journalists in Rwanda are facing serious government repression, harassement, threats intimidation, illegal detention etc. The government uses the state-controlled judiciary (exclusively partial) to crack down on critics.

Most journalists face trumped-up and fabricated charges, aimed at silencing them from doing their professional, critical and analytical work. The enacted media laws that are repressive in nature and substance were pushed by the government through a state-controlled parliament---a rubber-stump.

However, all is not lost! With concerted effort from CPJ, the few independent Rwandan journalists and other international media networks, coupled with pressure from the international commmunity, the Rwanda government will yield and allow independent journalists, people and politicians not aligned to the ruling party, human rights activists, freedom rights activists to work freely and without fear and threats.

CPJ and Carter Center in advocacy for freedom of Information

I am delighted to learn from this blog about the forthcoming conference about Freedom of information.

Whatever is happening to our media comrades in Uganda, is not exclusively a Ugandan affair. African governments are known for their systematic denial of information to journalists; so much so that public information in some countries like Rwanda (where I am an indepedent journalist) has become "classfied information".

Therefore, this conference comes at the right time, and it is my hope that speakers and facilitators in this conference will push for continental and international sanctions against repressive governments, like the Rwandan government who persistently deny the journalists to the freedom to information, the existence of a free and independent press.

From my own journalistic work, one can only talk about freedom to access information, when assuming that there's press freedom in a particular country. Presumably, this conference will exchange about all freedoms associated to our journalistic work, as our freedoms are all intertwined and linked to one another.

The Carter Conference ought to tackle and expose (and shame)countries like Rwanda whose threat to freedom of information, denial of a free and press freedom and flourishing of an independent media is evident and hurting Rwandans.

Bravo CPJ colleagues for keeping us posted on what is happening in the world.

thank u so much for keeping us informed on what is happening in the world and provoking me into reacting to what is taking place in my own Home district-Hoima where oil is being explored.

The ruling by the Ugandan magistrate in a case where two journalists were seeking government to reveal the contracts its signed with the oil companies is worrying and leaves us in the dark. it said government is not obliged to disclose these agreements, where do we go from here?

It a nice innitiative.

CARTER CONFERENCE, CPJ, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND MY TRAINER AND MENTOR JOHN BOSCO SANYU

First of all, let thank the owner of this blog Mr. Mohammed Keita of CPJ for his informative journalistic work. I am a veteran journalist in Kampala, and proud of working in the media sector for over 20 years.

When I read on this blog about the forthcoming Carter conference in Ghana about the Freedom to information, I was extremely excited about it. And moreso, I read a comment of my old friend and mentor Sanyu John Bosco who was feared dead in 2008. Like most journalists who have been trained by him and worked with and under him in East Africa, we were shocked to learn that the dictatorial Kagame regime had killed him.

I thank God that he's alive, and hope to get in touch with him. Kudos to CPJ for running his comments, because now we know he's alive and kicking. As regards the Carter topic, I think freedom to information is a big challenge to the media industry. The question here is; on one hand government's myth of shelving public information and stubbornly refusing to surrender to the scribes, and on the other hand, how scribes uses the information.

Throughout my career, I have seen journalists who misrepresent facts even when armed with resourceful facts from reliable sources. In most cases, such journalists have either been planted in the news room by the powers to be, or are just opportunists. While I am a stronger believer and activist for the freedom to access public information without any restriction, but at the same time the few colleagues who abuse this freedom of information ought to be grilled and persecuted for undermining our faith in this freedom.

Personally, I am pertubed by the Museveni crumbling regime that have vowed to crack down on us for exposing her weaknesses. Because this regime is crumbling, it has targeted journalists as their worst enemy, and we are ready to do our job and receive bullets from Kayihura's black mamba. The US secretary of State has recently said that Obama administration will closely monitor Uganda's next presidential and parliamentary election. Though I applaud her for stating this, she and her government should openly condemn Museveni, ask him to disband the electoral commission, ensure the our media freedoms are respected. Unless our freedom of expression, freedom to information (like the accessing the oil documents) is respected in entirety, then the US will not be considered serious. The US and the International community should unanimously and transparently come out to save Ugandans and media scribes this corrupt and bankrupt regime.

I hope the Carter Conference invited some of our respected and courageous media gurus who have stood up against their dictatorial governments, namely Sanyu John Bosco against the Kagame's regime, and Mwenda Andrew against Museveni's regime.

Bravo CPJ and Carter foundation!

Good job CPJ as Usual.
But I am afraid I have to say that Dawit Kebed's opinion is not correct. Dawit said that there was some improvements after the establishment of a Communication Office in Ethiopia. I wish that did happen, but that is not the reality. Dawit himself complains about the media environment in Ethiopia every time he writes his editorial. And this is a strange opinion. Addis Neger boys fled their country after the establishment of that office. Who are running that office after all? It is Bereket and his boys, the same old dogs who can't learn new tricks. I understand the environment Dawit works in, and I might not give a d/t opinion if I were in his shoe. The Addis Neger guys gave the same opinion for the same question a week before they fled their country. My fear is that we may send wrong messages to the international community by speaking what is not in our heart. Dawit knows he can't even publish articles written from his own former colleagues for fear of reprisal from the dictatorial regimes. I wish my former colleague has said the truth.

Great analysis Mr. Keita. The struggle to have a Right to Information legislation is still raging on the Tanzania and I salute the brothers in Uganda for the attempt to use the courts. Perhaps we should give it consideration on our end since our government has been dilly dallying for the past 4 years since it presented a draft bill on the Right to Information law.


Mr.Keita,thanks for taking the right step to the right direction.It seems that there is a long way for African leaders to accept the crucial role media plays in the lives of people they lead. To me, freedom of expression seems to be a threat to many African leaders, but through this kind of analysis,we will one day sing a new song as media practitioners. It is true that many journalist in Africa fear for their lives when they have to write what is news. But hopefully, this will come to an end one day