Although Jordan has a law to guarantee access to information, its vagueness, exceptions regime, and relationship with the larger legal framework are limitations. Many Jordanians have no knowledge of the law, and implementation has been a challenge for those who have attempted to exercise their right to access information.
The “National Charter” of 1991 was the first document in Jordan to refer to a citizen’s right to information; it states: “Freedom of thought and expression, and access to information, must be viewed as a right of every citizen.” Today, the right to access information is largely regulated by the Access to Information Law No. 47 of 2007; however other laws do deal with the right of access to information, including the Press and Publication Law and the Cybercrime Law.
Jordan’s Access to Information Law was the first of its kind in the MENA region. The law distinguished between different categories of information, providing exceptions for types of information that do not need to be disclosed. Per the law, requests can be made by anyone with a legitimate interest in the requested information, a process that could take up to 30 days. The law established an “Information Council” overseeing the provision of information, comprising of officials from the Army, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, Human Rights Commission, and others. The Information Council is responsible for ensuring that information is provided to its applicants, examining complaints submitted by those denied requested information, and working to settle them. However, the Council’s decisions on complaints are not binding, which has undermined its role.
In 2011, Jordan joined the Open Government Partnership and committed to amending its law. However, no amendments have been finalized and implemented yet, despite attempts to do so. In February 2019, for example, the Jordanian cabinet agreed to amend the Access to Information Law to reduce the response time to 15 days; these amendments would have also done away with the requirement that requesters must have a legitimate interest. The proposal stipulated the inclusion of two representatives from the Journalists and Lawyers’ Syndicates in the Information Council, along with representatives from civil society organizations, to balance perspectives between government, civil society, unions in the Council. Additionally, the amendments would have obligated government agencies and ministries to commit to proactive disclosure policies. The parliament never passed the February 2019 amendments.
There are several exceptions for disclosing information that are outlined in Article 13 of the current law. These include but are not limited to: classified information about the country’s foreign relations, state secrets, and correspondence between governmental entities and foreign countries and organizations. Information about pending investigations, as well as information that may violate intellectual property rights or expose banking and medical records, are also exempt from disclosure under the law. The law does not specify what “classified” information entails, leaving this up to interpretation and government discretion. Previously unclassified information can be made classified in response to an information request.
Lawyer and former Director General of the Jordanian Media Authority Mohammed Al Qutaishat, who spoke to TIMEP, argues that the Access to Information Law has actually restricted access to information for two reasons. Firstly, the exemptions in the law are broad and greatly restrict the ability to access information. He explains that the legislature succeeded in obstructing implementation of the law through the broad conditions under which information requests could be denied.
Secondly, the law authorizes state employees to determine if the requested information is classified or not, based on their own discretion without any judicial or administrative oversight. “There is no professional legal mechanism to classify information and documents in Jordan into confidential and non-confidential,” says Al Qutaishat. Separately, certain information can be classified per the Protection of the State’s Secrets and Documents Law No. 50 of 1971, which stipulates that any information that has a “bad effect on public morale” is considered classified, as well as any protected information or document that may “defame an official figure” or “abuse the status of the state.”
Hilda Ajeilat, Executive Director of the Jordan Transparency Center (JTC), believes that at least initially, the lack of awareness around the law and the right to access information more broadly have slowed its implementation. “There were some judges who have never heard of the law; there were university professors who’ve never heard of the law,” Ajeilat explains to TIMEP, “But awareness has improved due to significant efforts put into awareness campaigns.”
Bureaucracy in the procedures for obtaining information represents a great challenge. According to Ajeilat, the government has not invested in the infrastructure and resources necessary to allow proper implementation of the law. In addition to the lengthy process built into requesting information, mixed implementation among different agencies has resulted in frustration among those requesting information. Some agencies have refused to create forms to facilitate the process, to designate officers, or to set up a proper website. Ajeilat suggests that there needs to be a countrywide strategy for implementation set by the prime minister.
Institutionally, the Information Council has been criticized for its lack of independence. Judicial complaints on implementation of the Access to Information Law are heard by the Supreme Court of Justice. Though resorting to the Administrative Court—which can more closely litigate specifics surrounding requests—to challenge denial of access to information is possible, the high cost of litigation and significant time involved in the process discourage this choice, according to Al Qutaishat.
To some degree, the state is working on setting policies and practices to better implement the Access to Information Law. For example, in order to receive the King Abdullah II Award for Excellence in Government Performance and Transparency, one must demonstrate a commitment to implement the guarantees of the Access to Information Law. There are also some government agencies that are implementing the law well; for example, the State Audit Bureau and the Judicial Authority have both published detailed annual reports on their plans and developments. Al Qutaishat adds that the Ministry of Health has been particularly good in its commitment to access to information.
What more can be done
Al Qutaishat believes that some legislative amendments must be made to the law, to balance the interests of the state and acceptable limitations on the right to information in accordance with Article 19 of the ICCPR, something which Ajeilat says that NGOs like the JTC have been trying to push the government to do.
The Law on the Protection of the State’s Secrets and Documents, which Al Qutaishat states is one of the biggest hurdles to proper application of the Access to Information Law, should be amended according to his recommendation. A new version should set up a clear mechanism for the classification of information, instead of leaving it to the discretion of the state employees. On the Information Council itself, Al Qutaishat emphasizes the importance of a separate budget in order to empower it to work to the best of its ability.
Civil society also has a role to play, including studying best practices for the right to obtain information and proposing alternative legal text. Al Qutaishat and Ajeilat also suggest that civil society organizations could provide training to state officials in order to encourage them to better understand and implement the law. NGOs like the JTC are trying to work with the government to explain that access to information is less about getting access to sensitive secret national security information and more about transparency on the everyday issues that affect citizens.
Media institutions and civil society organizations should submit more information requests, and they should monitor the response of government agencies in order to encourage greater engagement. Al Qutaishat suggests creating a practical guide for journalists and civil society organizations, prepared by legal professionals and lawyers on how to submit requests for information. On the other hand, Ajeilat proposes creating a network that unites the efforts of civil society and agencies that collectively request information and that streamlines the process. “Donors should make sure they are funding and supporting NGOs in this space,” she adds.
This is part of the TIMEP Legal Unit’s Access to Information Laws in MENA series.