International Day for Universal Access to information

The participants in a workshop in Uganda last week discussed strengths and weakness of their respective Right to Information (RTI) laws in groups. Here are the groups from South Sudan and Rwanda. Photo: Article 19

Passing a law is not enough

An exchange of experiences with use of the Right to Information (RTI) as a tool for journalism in Eastern Africa revealed big challenges. Implementation and safety are issues to consider. 

During a workshop in Kampala, journalists from five countries came together to learn more about how they can use RTI when they investigate stories on mining, oil and gas.

The effort was a result of a cooperation between JMIC at OsloMet, Article 19 Eastern Africa and Makerere University. The aim is to understand how journalists use RTI as a tool, and to help expand their toolkit on this arena.

OsloMet has organised similar workshops in North-Africa and South Asia as well, with Article 19 as partners.

Before the actual training, we spent time listening to the experiences from the journalists who came fromSouth Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.

If you consider the paperwork only, things are looking really good. The Eastern African region has been at the forefront of passing RTI legislation. Though not as quick as South Africa, who passed their law in 2000, all these five countries have now adopted RTI legislation. In many aspects, the laws in Eastern Africa provide better access to public documents than for instance the Norwegian RTI-law.

Real adoption of the law, however, requires detailed regulations as well as tools for easy access, and practise. There are no searchable electronic records with metadata of the public documents in any of these countries.

Almost all the participants in the workshop had made attempts to use the RTI laws in their respective countries. And they were mostly disappointed. Things take much time, the bureaucracy can be overwhelming, and information is costly. Getting an answer often takes several weeks, which is a problem in news reporting. When denied access to information, an appeal process also takes very long time.

The lecturers from Article 19 had studied and compared the legislation in the region and declared that South Sudan has the best RTI law. Rwanda’s law gives, on paper, the best guaranteed processing time for an RTI request, with 48 hours for everyone, and only 24 hours when a journalist requests information. But what is the experience? The regulations are not  put into practise.

The stories we hear, tell us about an immense gap between the legislative texts and the implementation of the same laws.

The result is that journalists seldom have all the documents available for their reporting. If the RTI laws worked the way they are supposed to, the documents would be in their possession.

Unlike in most of Europe, we lecturers from Norway were reminded that in some regions of the world, even discussions on the right to access public documents has an element of journalist safety to it.

Several of the participants spoke of harassment, arrests and threats of physical violence. In countries were you must identify yourself when making an RTI request in a highly controversial case, a journalist who already fears for her safety, may feel very exposed at an early stage of the research.

Working with RTI across borders may not only be a good tool to access more information. It can also be a safety measure. If a journalist from Tanzania wants information from Canada, where a mining company is registered, or France being the home of an oil company,  it is beneficial and practical to cooperate with a journalist colleague in that country. Not only does this provide more sources and a better basis for a story, sharing the research with someone makes your position stronger. It is much more difficult to silence an international co-operation than one local journalist.

One tool to consider when working with extractive industries, is the Aarhus Convention. 39 countries have signed this paper that ensures widespread right to access environmental information. This convention also provides some rights to access information from private companies when their activities have effects on the environment. When working in countries that have not signed the Aarhus Convention, it may still be a tool to consider if companies and institutions involved in your case have obligations to its text.

In several countries in the region, there are other big implementation challenges as well. While some RTI laws state that “anyone” can file an RTI request, it has become quite common to demand that the applicant is a “citizen” of the country. This does not only pose a problem for journalists from the neighbouring country. It is also a challenge for people who have lived their whole life in the same place, but do not possess an ID card or a passport. And while countries such as Kenya and Norway allow applicants to file a request orally, other countries in the Eastern Africa region demand that the request must be in writing. This is a challenge for illiterate citizens.

Uganda, however, has no such mechanism in place. In Uganda a journalist who is denied access to public information, must take her case to a magistrate court, and in some cases to a higher court. Chapter Four is an organisation with a lot of experience in the field in Uganda, and they gave an insightful presentation about the challenges this represents.

Henry Maina, regional director for Article 19 Eastern Africa, had a sad remark about the time frames involved with the RTI requests he had witnessed. While it takes two to three weeks, sometimes more, to get the documents, RTI becomes useless in news reporting. However, he said, it may still be a valuable tool for investigative journalism.

This insight represents a hope. And if journalists acquire more experiences in using RTI across borders, we will see new stories be published and new partnerships formed between colleagues from different countries.

(By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen)

More information about the Right to Information from Article 19

Mapping of activities on the Right to Know Day 2018, September 28th


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