Almost eight years after a draft bill was submitted to Parliament, Lebanon finally passed an access to information law on 19 January 2017. It now joins Jordan, Yemen, Iran and Tunisia as the only countries in the Middle East and North Africa to have passed legislation that, in theory, allows for greater transparency and a more well-informed public.
If implemented effectively, the access to information law will be instrumental in countering the widespread and often debilitating corruption that plagues the tiny nation.
Corruption in Lebanon is rife in all sectors of society and all branches of government and manifests in a myriad of forms including bribery, nepotism, favouritism, patronism and embezzlement. Its pervasive nature has had socio-economic and financial costs for the nation. It has also had a detrimental effect on the relationship between citizens and state; a relationship crucial to social cohesion and the curtailing of political and social tensions.
The access to information bill was first presented to Parliament in 2009 by MP Ghassan Moukheiber, as a member of the Lebanese Parliamentarians Against Corruption (LebPAC) coalition and on behalf of the National Network for the Right of Access to Information. The coalition worked closely with civil society groups for several years on both the development of the law and on actively pursuing its approval in Parliament.
The new law allows any person, whether Lebanese or a foreigner, a natural person or a legal entity, to request access to information from all public entities and a small number of private entities as well.
In its current form, the new law allows any person, whether Lebanese or a foreigner, a natural person or a legal entity, to request access to information from all public entities and a small number of private entities as well. The law provides a limited list of exceptions to this right including secrets of national defense and information that falls within the right of privacy of individuals. The law also requires all public entities to release annual reports and documents to strengthen understanding of regulations and decisions made.
IFEX member Maharat Foundation played an important role in the drafting of the bill. Executive Director Roula Mikhael believes the law will reinforce the principles of transparency and strengthen the relationship between the state and the media.
In a statement [Arabic] on 19 January welcoming the news, Maharat explained that the adoption of the law enhances the independence of the media, and pushes journalists to raise public issues and expose truths in the public interest.
The right to access information is one of the cornerstones of any successful democratic regime, and an informed citizenry can only be realised once that right is respected, promoted, and seriously implemented.
“But of course,” said Mikhael in correspondence with IFEX, “there are many challenges that could hinder the implementation of the law, including the quality of information kept and recorded by these public institutions and the effectiveness of the regulatory bodies in charge of monitoring the public administration's performance and its reports.”
Its successful implementation also relies on the enacting of complementary projects, most important of which is the proposed creation of a National Authority for Combating Corruption. Maharat has also been working on drafting a law to protect whistleblowers, which is imperative to reduce fear of reprisals and create a strong culture of accountability. It is yet to be approved.
“We shall be closely watching this next phase of how the [access to information] law, which we consider to be essential and vital for the media and for investigative journalism, will be applied,” added Mikhael. “Lebanon is ranked at 136 in Transparency International's 2016 Corruption Index, and it will continue to be in steady decline as long as the State is incapable of tackling the spread of corruption.”