Executive didn’t get past security at the Grand Serail. It was March 3. The access to information law was just over a month old, and we were barking excitedly, unsure if whether we were even in front of the right tree. In hand were requests for minutes of cabinet meetings. We were hoping to reach the Office of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. Our parting advice from the security official acting as gatekeeper was to call back and follow up. Call back we did. Repeatedly. Since then, however, our requests have been ignored.
An attempt to access information from the Ministry of Finance was swifter and more definitive. “No,” Executive was told by phone (read: no paper trail) within one week of making a request for the Value Added Tax (VAT) and customs revenues from mobile phone imports over the past five years. So far, not so good.
Flood the gates
After it had been sitting in a drawer in Parliament for nearly 10 years, the legislature finally passed the access to information law in January. As Executive noted in a special feature last month, the law mandates the creation of an anti-corruption commission (ACC) that would, among other things, adjudicate appeals when requests for information are denied or ignored. It’s a hopeful sign that Speaker Nabih Berri reiterated the need for the ACC in late March. We stand with the speaker in calling for immediate legislation to create the ACC – not least because we’re unsure of how to proceed with the Ministry of Finance stonewalling access to information that can help highlight just how costly the country’s rampant mobile phone smuggling is for the treasury.
The last week of March brought some more good news. The Council for Development and Reconstruction (which signs large-scale public works contracts on the government’s behalf) has dedicated a staffer to handle information requests, as the law requires. This staffer was welcoming and helpful, even assisting Executive in submitting a request after the president’s office technically closed (full disclosure: it was around 2:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday). That very same day, Executive received a late email reply from the Ministry of Telecommunications. A faxed request sent March 10 had been received, and the ministry’s lawyer was busy retrieving the requested documents. While we were warned the process “might take some time,” updates, the email promised, would be forthcoming.
We’re cautiously optimistic at this point. While there are indications that recent talk of a “new era” and promises of long-stalled reform will prove hollow, we have witnessed that the access to information law is at least being partially implemented. Law 28 of 2017 is an important tool, and we encourage more individuals and institutions to make use of it, and go public with their experiences. Decision-making in Lebanon far too often happens in a black box. This law is our chance to pry that box open. The more requests pile up – and the more institutions are bombarded with pleas for information – the harder this law will be to ignore. This magazine will keep pressing, but we need all the help we can get both from fellow transparency advocates, and from a properly constituted, functioning, and empowered anti-corruption commission.