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The need for increased public access to information during crises

Gilbert Sendugwa

The need for increased access to information in this crisis period is paramount for three main reasons.

First, the risk of corruption and theft if public resources is high during crises- people want to take advantage of emergencies to circumvent procedures and questions about value for money- and there are many examples: Boko Haram crisis used to defend the US$ 15 million CASH scam when South African authorities caught Nigerians in 2014; Congolese minister stealing US$4.5 million meant for the fight against Ebola pandemic in DRC and unaccounted for billions to fight desert locust invasion or corruption scandal involving millions of dollars in refugees’ programme in Uganda.

Second, abuse of power and authority during crisis is high during crises: A case in point is in Uganda where ministers and a military general breached screening and quarantine protocols at Uganda’s Entebbe international airport, opening the way for other passengers to be allowed in order for surveillance officials not to be perceived as discriminatory. 22 of the 23 confirmed cases are linked to this breach. It is said the General called the minister of health and communicated his decision not to accept members of his family to be quarantined. It is reported that upon receiving intelligence the president ordered the ministers not attend cabinet or send documents to him to prevent his exposure to infection. The president has addressed press conferences 5 times but he has not informed the public why the officials were not put under the required institutional quarantine for 14 days and why no action has been taken for the breach.

The same is true with Cameroon where the Speaker of the National Assembly refused to put himself on self-quarantine upon arrival from UAE and later tested positive for Covid-19- exposing members of parliament and other citizens to risk of infection.

Thirdly, Proactive Disclosure: Access to information, especially proactive disclosure help people to get information they need to survive the crisis-an infection or otherwise. There seems to be three issues for attention. First, increasing stakeholder awareness of the risk of corruption is lowering the possibility of the corruption taking place.  Second, shining the light on how power is exercise is building pressure on those who hold power to use it for public good during crises. Third, the paradox of untrusted officials being the gatekeepers of information during a crisis.

On long term impacts, history points to two opposing scenarios-and it seems access to information or lack of it determine how people will react in future. In some cases and countries crises have raised national cautiousness resulting in high civic competence- citizens want to trust but verify every action of authorities- e.g. Kenya and South Africa. In other circumstances the spirit is crushed- don’t trust, don’t speak and don’t do anything. Examples are also very many.

From a lockdown in Kampala!

Gilbert Sendugwa is the Executive Director of Africa Freedom of Information Centre, Kampala

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