Lebanon’s Access to Information Law was passed in 2017 with very little media coverage and public attention, though it represented a legislative breakthrough for a country where lack of transparency and corruption is considered to be endemic. The law legally obliges state administrations to publicize crucial information, such as annual budgets and administrative decisions, in effect speeding up the process of digitizing government data. It also allows journalists, researchers, or just about anyone to request information. However, years later, the law has yet to be fully implemented. Stakeholders point to several factors, including a lack of awareness and community outreach, and the state not providing the right resources for ill-equipped institutions to digitize and publicize their data.
The Access to Information Law is one of several laws that are especially critical for Lebanon. The country is experiencing a crippling economic crisis that has rendered over half its population in poverty, but the international community will not provide much-needed economic aid if Lebanon does not implement significant structural reforms. While most of these proposed reforms are economic in nature, the international community has also stressed the need for strong anti-corruption and transparency mechanisms, such as the Access to Information Law.
The Lebanese Access to Information Law, Law No. 28 of 2017, is the first legal instrument in the country that obligates state administrations to publish financial and administrative data, and the first to allow its citizens to request information from the state. After receiving an information request, a state institution has up to 15 days to respond. It has the right to extend that period for another 15 days if the request is complex and requires additional time to prepare.
According to former member of parliament Ghassan Moukheiber, who co-drafted the law and had lobbied for it since 2005, the most significant component of the law is the administrations’ obligation to publish budgetary and administrative information to the public, as it addresses two major administrative problems in Lebanese institutions: the lack of a proper filing system and digitization. Lebanon’s state institutions are not fully digitized; most files and data are managed and stored physically.
However, the law does have its limitations. Firstly, it only applies to state administrations and institutions—not the private sector, which has a huge stake in the Lebanese economy and is often contracted by the state. The law carves out exceptions for disclosure of data that is classified, personal information, or information that risks national security.
According to stakeholders, the law lacks key elements. It does not stipulate a budget for state institutions—some of which don’t even have functioning websites—to digitize their data. Most significantly, however, the Access to Information Law does not include enforcement mechanisms or penalties for institutions that violate it.
Assaad Thebian, founder and director of the Lebanese organization Gherbal Initiative, says several of the law’s ambiguities have become loopholes that impact the efficacy of its implementation.
Implementation of the law has been slow, as the text does not specify whether it requires an implementing decree to go into effect, though one was passed almost three years later in September 2020.
Moukheiber says the government has been “dragging its feet” on implementation. State administrations often do not respond to information requests, or reject them based on unfounded claims. Thebian, who has filed information requests for budgets to all state and state-owned institutions, says administrations have often rejected him citing the lack of an implementation decree (prior to September 2020), or claiming that they are not subject to the law. Private companies that are owned wholly or partially by the state, such as the Intra Investment Company, have rejected his requests on the basis that they are private entities. In a 2019 report by the Gherbal Initiative, only 33 percent of public administrations responded to their information requests.
Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon Researcher, Aya Majzoub, said that a significant number of the requests submitted by HRW have been ignored or rejected. However, the administrations that explicitly rejected her requests never gave reasons or justifications.
Many state administrations have yet to set up portals or assign points of contact to put the law into effect. Therefore, not only is the information unavailable, but there are no designated individuals to contact on the matter.
Another significant issue when it comes to implementing the Access to Information Law has been the lack of accountability mechanisms to ensure its efficacy. The law relies on a currently non-existent Anti-Corruption Commission to monitor compliance of law and receive complaints of its violation, as well as file complaints to judicial authorities. The Anti-Corruption Commission’s structure is specified in an Anti-Corruption Law that Parliament passed in April 2020, and its members are appointed by syndicates and the Beirut and Tripoli Bar Associations. All these institutions lack independence from the country’s lawmakers and government officials. In the absence of a committee, the Lebanese State Council handles all cases of malpractice and violations of the Access to Information Law. According to Thebian, rulings on these matters thus far have been inconsistent and often incompatible with the law.
The government’s lack of a strong outreach program after the law was passed has also proven to be a problem. “Many public administrations were surprised to realize they are covered by the law—there is an awareness issue,” Moukheiber said. And according to Thebian, journalists, researchers, and media workers have not frequently used the law to send information requests. “Only emerging new independent media outlets are using the law,” he said, adding that Lebanon’s ruling parties own much of the media, and therefore would not have to resort to the law for information. Thebian also says that many journalists have been uninterested in the law and utilizing it in their work.
What more can be done
Domestic lobbying and civil society organizations have played a key role in filling several gaps left by the state, especially when it comes to informing institutions about the law, and helping them set up the infrastructure to fully implement the Access to Information Law. For example, the Gherbal Initiative has helped under-funded institutions set up websites to publish their information. These efforts have been successful, with the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform holding workshops on the Access to Information Law, leading to more administrations assigning focal points and setting up the required infrastructure to be in proper adherence to the law.
In addition, the information the Gherbal Initiative has collected has been visualized and published on their website—as a resource for citizens, journalists, and researchers, and also to ground policy discourse in the country in numbers and facts. The initiative has also held several workshops about the Access to Information Law and its importance, while training journalists, researchers, and activists to send impactful information requests.
The Lebanese state relying on civil society to fill gaps in implementing many key laws and public services is a systematic and unstable trend. Four years after the Access to Information law was passed, civil society still plays a primary role in its implementation.
In August 2019, following pressure from civil society, the government agreed to put into effect an action plan for the law. Since then, its implementation has been sluggish amid a subsequent fiscal crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Beirut Port explosion. At this point in time, the Lebanese government does not seem to prioritize putting the Access to Information law into effect, with Parliament not addressing the sluggish implementation of the action plan on their meeting agendas.
Under-equipped public administrations still lack the necessary resources to set up the necessary infrastructure that can manage, digitize, and share its data and information to the public, highlighting the urgent need for the formation of the Anti-Corruption Commission—one whose full independence should be guaranteed.
This is part of the TIMEP Legal Unit’s Access to Information Laws in MENA series.