Access to information is an often-overlooked pillar of a functioning democratic society. It’s at the heart of transparency and accountability, and it matters for a diverse range of issues, from education to public health. In 2007, Jordan became the first Arabic-speaking country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to issue a law governing the right of access to information. In the years since, it has been joined by Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, and Sudan.
On September 28th, the International Day for Universal Access to Information, TIMEP hosted a virtual conversation featuring Assaad Thebian (Gherbal Initiative), Hilda Ajeilat (Jordan Transparency Center), Ahmed Ben Taârit (I Watch), Yasmin Omar (TIMEP), and moderated by journalist Kareem Chehayeb, in which we asked: How does information affect the day-to-day lives of people living in the MENA region? What role can it play in countries undergoing political and economic turmoil? And how has the pandemic and the global public health crisis underscored its importance?
Our panelists explored what access to information looks like in countries with and without laws on the books; opportunities for positive legal reforms; and the essential role that journalists, civil society, and everyday citizens are playing to realize this right.
Assaad Thebian is the Executive Director of Gherbal Initiative: a research center and think tank that advocates for more transparency and e-governance in Lebanon. He is also a founder of the 2015 YouStink Movement protesting the garbage crisis. He runs URIKA: a Beirut-based communications agency and won the ArabNet Creative Combat. He has a fascination with the letter P: Politics, Poetry, Philosophy, Photography, Psychology, Pi, Pythagoras Theory, People, Pets, Physics and Potatoes.
Hilda Ajeilat is the deputy chair and CEO of Jordan Transparency Center that was founded as NGO in 2011. She has assumed key managerial positions within the higher education institutions: Director of Quality Assurance at Philadelphia University, General Manager of Al-Hussein Fund for Excellence and Consultant for the Association of Arab Universities. She is a member of multi regional and international civic community organizations in her capacity as CEO of JTC. She has launched many anti-corruption initiatives such as “Universities against Corruption” and “Transparency Knights”.
Ahmed Ben Taârit is a public law graduate and political science researcher interested in transition thematics and an access to information specialist. He is currently an Access to Information Officer at I Watch in Tunisia.
Yasmin Omar is an Egypt Legal Associate at TIMEP. She is a human rights lawyer and has worked with several NGOs in the MENA region. She holds an L.L.M. from Syracuse University, and she is experienced in international human rights law with a focus on national security and refugees and asylum law. Yasmin is a board member of the U.S. Committee to End Political Repression in Egypt. Her written work can be found on TIMEP’s website as well as in Carnegie’s Sada.
Kareem Chehayeb is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on transparency and freedom of information in Lebanon and across the region. He is an investigative journalist at The Public Source, an independent media organization in Lebanon and has published work with several platforms, including The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Intercept, and Middle East Eye. His commentary has been featured on the BBC, Sky News, France24, Al Jazeera, and Democracy Now. He holds an MA in Political Economy of the Middle East from King’s College London and a BA in International Relations from Boston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @chehayebk.