A Ugandan court today heard an application by a group of civil society organizations seeking to be included in an appeal in a case over access to government information filed by two senior Daily Monitor journalists, Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi and Angelo Izama.
The appeal asks for the full disclosure of all prospecting and exploitation agreements between the government and oil companies regarding newly discovered fields in the western part of the country.
The case was filed in February last year, but the Nakawa Chief Magistrates Court dismissed initial litigation after government defended its decision to conceal the details of the contracts.
In their appeal, the journalists contend the trial chief magistrate erred in law and fact when he ruled that the complainants failed to prove that there was public interest in bringing the case to court.
Describing themselves as friends of court, four organizations are seeking to become party to the case by offering to provide legal assistance which relies on the Access to Information Act, 2005.
The other applicants say they are dedicated to defending the individual rights of the people as protected by the law. They say they are advocating for the right of the public to know about national and regional energy policies that aim in part to help eradicate poverty.
“These civil society organizations are mainly based in the Lake Albert basin where the oil prospecting and exploration program is being undertaken,” said Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi, one of the appellants and a political editor at The Daily Monitor newspaper.
“Today we appeared before a high judge, and she set a ruling date of March 28 to [decide] whether these amicus curiae (friend of the court) applicants can join in our case and thereafter the substantive appeal can start,” said Mpagi.
The initial appeal, he said, “was not limited to specific agreements.” “What we asked government to do,” he continued, “was to rely on article 43 of the Uganda constitution and the provisions of the Access to Information Act in order to be more transparent in its dealings with the oil industry.”
Mwanguhya Mpagi said they lost at the trial (magistrate’s) court because the magistrate wasn’t convinced the release of the information would benefit the public.
“But the Access to Information Act in Uganda does not limit what reason you apply to get information in government’s control, provided you are a Ugandan citizen.”
He cited other countries such as Ghana and Norway where all the information on oil exploration and exploitation is on the internet and available to everyone.
Mwanguhya Mpagi said, “We are puzzled why government seems reluctant to release this information [to the public] since from what has leaked out we are told the agreements are not entirely bad.”
Last month Tullow Oil signed production sharing agreements with Uganda's government before finalizing its new partnership with France's Total and China's CNOOC. The collaboration with the foreign companies supports the construction of a refinery and an export pipeline from the Lake Albert oil fields.
The fields are estimated to contain 2.5 billion barrels of oil, enough crude to supply all of Uganda's domestic needs with more left over for export to neighboring countries.