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Access to Information Laws in MENA: Spotlight on Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon

In this series, we do deep dives into the legal frameworks of three MENA countries: Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon.

Access to information is an often overlooked but essential pillar of a functioning and democratic society. Such access can help citizens make informed decisions, empower them to hold their governments and those receiving public funds to account, and encourage a culture of participatory dialogue, transparency, and accountability. As the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression explains: “Without freedom to access information of all kinds, abuses may take place, policies affecting the general welfare may not be tested and improved, and overall public engagement and participation decreases.” 

The right of access to information is recognized in international law, including in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), among other instruments. Increasingly, states around the world have established and regulated the right of access to information through their constitutions and legislation. Access to information laws tend to both establish requirements for entities to proactively disclose certain types of information on their respective websites, and to respond to requests for information, often submitted by civil society, journalists, and everyday citizens. 

Legal frameworks, however, cannot stand on their own. An active civil society and media community that is committed to spreading awareness about these laws, submitting information requests, engaging with government and other stakeholders to implement the law, and reporting and monitoring on the issue is essential to realization of this right to access of information. 

Access to information in the MENA region

Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the right to freedom of information is slowly gaining traction to various degrees. On the legislative front, Jordan became the first Arabic-speaking country in the region to issue a freedom of information law in 2007. It has since been joined by Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, and Sudan. 

Beyond legislation and even in countries where no standalone legal framework exists, a number of civil society organizations have engaged on the right more broadly and have seen some successes; they have taken steps to spread awareness about the right; to draft and advocate for the introduction and adoption of legislation; to conduct trainings on implementation of laws; and to monitor and report on enforcement. However, advocates of the right to information in the region run up against government agencies that do not have cultures of transparency, limited financial and physical resources to support information access and disclosure, and common refrains to hide information under the guise of national security. 

Focusing on Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon

In this series, we do deep dives into the legal frameworks of three MENA countries: Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon. Assessing the degree to which the laws have been implemented, we speak to members of civil society and others about the ways forward to enhance, empower, and strengthen an authentic freedom of information culture in the MENA region. 

Standalone access to information laws have been passed in all three countries. The legislation varies in terms of the degree to which each protects the right of access to information—from Jordan, where numerous, unsuccessful attempts have been made to strengthen its 2009 law, to Tunisia, where its law is hailed as “one of the most progressive access to information laws in the world.” 

Across the three countries, however, stakeholders have universally agreed that the real issue often has less to do with the text of the law itself, but rather, how it is being implemented. At times, entities governed by the law are unaware that they are under its mandate and have little to no knowledge of the requirements stipulated by the law. At other times, state institutions are unwilling to adhere to the law. A significant number of information requests across all three countries are rejected or entirely ignored due to the culture of secrecy around government activity, the failure of high-level government officials to promote importance of transparency, and the law’s vague phrases interpreted at government discretion. Though civil society, journalists, and other stakeholders are increasingly citing their right to access information by submitting information requests and monitoring proactive release of government information, with varied levels of engagement across the three countries, overall engagement remains relatively low.

Looking ahead

The existence of standalone access to information laws in Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon represents an essential and necessary step toward the realization of the right of access to information, particularly as a number of MENA countries continue not to have such legislation in place. However, these laws are not, on their own, sufficient.

Looking ahead, it will be essential for government officials at the highest levels to articulate a real commitment to the right and to implementation of the law, backed by the necessary financial resources and manpower. The current challenges can only be met with the required training, budgets, and infrastructure to proactively make information public and respond to information requests. States should also consider legal amendments that address gaps in the law, as well as amendments to the constitution and other legislation to improve the overall legal regime around the right of access to information. Civil society, journalists, and others must continue to submit information requests, as well as monitor adherence to the law. As a pillar of a democratic society, the right of access to information is one that has positive implications for the state, for everyday citizens, and for the effective functioning of government. A sustained commitment to the right—across public and private sector and on the individual and institutional levels—is required to continue to see its impactful realization. 

This is part of the TIMEP Legal Unit’s Access to Information Laws in MENA series.


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