Rare opportunity

People now have the right to request information from government entities

Lebanon just got a new tool to promote government transparency and accountability, as well as prevent and fight corruption. Entering into force in February 2017, a new access to information law allows anyone to request specific information from virtually all government entities. From doctors needing public health data, researchers looking for economic and social indicators, bankers, industrialists, retailers and other business owners needing figures to make long-term investments, to journalists investigating government expenditures – anyone can make use of the law, and everyone should. All one has to do is send a request describing the information sought to the office(s) that might hold it. The access to information law also requires government entities to publish key documents on their websites, including an annual report (see special feature).

The law is a tool to help battle corruption, anti-corruption activists say, because it would increase the level of transparency between the government and the public. That, by itself, helps mitigate corruption, and information requests can provide the evidence in cases of government fraud, fault and other mistakes.

But to make the law truly effective requires auxiliary legislation. The law prescribes that the government can either deny or ignore information requests, and refusals (or tacit refusals) can be appealed. The body specified to hear appeals, the anti-corruption commission (ACC), does not yet exist. Legislation to create this institution is in advanced stages, says lawmaker Ghassan Moukheiber (see Q&A in special feature). The ACC is urgently needed, and Parliament must make every effort to ratify its legislation before the end of this parliamentary session scheduled to conclude at the end of March. Without the ACC there is still a judicial recourse to hear appeals, but that may be open to interpretation. For appeals, courts might argue that the access to information law specifically states the ACC as the appropriate body to hear these cases and could decline to make a ruling. That would effectively render access to information dead in the water, if the ACC is not established quickly. If the ACC legislation is ratified, forming its board could take time, and the government does not have a great track record in appointing or renewing the mandates of the board of directors of public agencies, or in filling senior administration positions, Executive reported last month.

Access to information is also a fundamental right and a necessary condition for significant reductions of government corruption, the United Nations states in its justification for goal 16 of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiative for 2030. Passing the legislation is an early public relations win for the government and a positive step toward achieving the UN’s SDGs.

Executive calls on the public now to exercise its right to information, demand the law’s full implementation, the quick ratification of ACC legislation and timely appointment of its board. If the public fails to hold the government to account by mobilizing on these points then the people will lose their right to complain about the never ending maelstrom of incompetence and corruption that passes for governance in Lebanon.

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