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Sep 19, 2018
The Daily Star
Govt agencies flout information access law: advocacy group
Abby Sewell| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: More than a year and a half after Lebanon adopted its first law mandating public access to information, most government agencies are not following it, a study by a transparency advocacy group found.
The Gherbal Initiative, a nonprofit founded by Assaad Thebian – previously one of the organizers of the You Stink environmental campaign during the garbage crisis – set out to assess the rate of compliance with the Right to Access to Information Law by submitting information requests to 133 government bodies in early 2018 to see whether they would respond.
Researchers from the organization asked for the agency’s website address, the name of the information officer responsible for fielding records requests and information about administrative decisions published on the agency’s website.
Just 34 of the agencies responded – only 19 within the legal deadline period – according to the report released Tuesday by the nonprofit.
Parliament, for instance, did not respond formally to a request, but after several follow-ups, an official told the researchers that no information officer had been assigned to date, the researchers said.
The Interior Ministry refused to receive the request despite several attempts, including when it was sent by registered mail. The Shura Council, which in theory could be required to rule on appeals of denied requests filed under the information law, claimed that the law did not apply to it.
Former Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber, the attorney who introduced the law, appeared alongside representatives of Gherbal at a news conference Tuesday and said the public needs to increase pressure for the law to be fully implemented.
“We attorneys say that a case is won twice – the first time when the ruling comes down and the second time when it is implemented,” he said. “It’s the same with laws.”
Newly elected East Beirut MP Paula Yacoubian also appeared at the event and promised to push for full implementation, calling the law “critical” for the well-being of Lebanon. “Corruption hides behind the blocking of information and behind misinformation,” she said.
The Right to Access to Information Law, passed in January 2017 after years of negotiations, mandates that public agencies should publish certain records on their websites, including budgets, annual reports and financial transactions of more than LL5 million ($3,300).
It also lays out a procedure by which members of the public can request data and records.
The procedure in most cases requires agencies to provide the requested records within 15 working days. Information exempt from release includes private, personal records and information that, if released, could harm public safety or national security. If the request is denied, the law states that the requester may appeal to the National Anti-Corruption Commission – which has yet to be formed.
The researchers found issues at all stages of the process.
In the first place, the report noted, “after we started communicating with the concerned bodies, we found out that most of them were unaware of [the law].”
Mohammad Moghabat, a project manager and researcher for Gherbal, added, “Some days we sat for an hour or hour and a half in the middle of the agency office just explaining to them what the law is.”
Some agencies refused to accept the requests or claimed not to be subject to the law; others required an appointment to submit requests, would not provide written confirmation that they had received them or simply ignored them. According to the report, the only agencies that appeared to have set up a mechanism for citizens to submit requests in compliance with the law were the Lebanese Petroleum Administration and the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Development.
“We found that some administrations are committed to implementing the Access to Information Law instead of invoking pretexts to reject its implementation in their administration while hiding the details of their work,” the group found.
“The latter contradicts human rights principles, transparency, efforts to combat corruption, as well as the provisions of the Constitution and the international obligations of the Lebanese state.”
The researchers were not the only ones who found the law to be unevenly applied. Jeremy Arbid, the economics and policy editor of Lebanon’s Executive Magazine, said he had requested records from different government bodies some 10 to 15 times since the law took effect, with mixed results.
The Council for Development and Reconstruction, for instance, provided the requested records regarding trash collection and landfill contracts; by contrast, he said, the Finance Ministry was a “black hole” that never responded to requests.
Arbid said a fully implemented law would “go a long way toward filling in the gaps in how to measure public sector performance.”
“It’s not even an issue all the time of trying to go after corruption ... but just to shed a light on how the data look,” he said.
The Gherbal report recommended that the government should speed up the formation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission; provide training to agency staff on the Access to Information Law; improve websites to allow for the publication of the required information; and establish an official website with a listing of all government departments that would allow members of the public to request information from more than one agency at a time.
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