On the evening of January 27, 2011, the Egyptian government attempted to shut-down all Internet and cell phone communication throughout the country to disrupt the protests that ultimately led to the capitulation of Hosni Mubarak. Targeting news services and social media sites for censorship is a tried a true practice of countries like China, Iran, and Myanmar, but an indiscriminate stoppage of electronic communication en masse was unprecedented. And they were alarmingly successful. The Internet effectively went dark with just a handful of ministerial and institutional networks functioning, and all cell phone service providers shut down. In place of online news sources, the government media delivered false information and reports to the public. Human rights activists had been working on freedom of information laws for decades, but the brazen violation of the population’s freedom to communicate thrust the issue to the forefront of protestors’ demands.
The right to information was an important component of other protests during the Arab Spring. After the ouster of their respective presidents, Tunisia and Yemen both passed legislation guaranteeing the right of access to information. Even the King of Morocco, who was not deposed, recognized the importance of this demand as requisite to other democratization goals and called for a Constitutional referendum. Consequently, the Moroccan Constitution now guarantees the right to access information. A Right of Access to Information Law differs from the longstanding campaign of human rights activists for freedom of expression and freedom to organize; this law regulates and protects the rights of citizens to gain access to information which many governments throughout the globe had kept hidden or secret from their citizens.
The right to access public information is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to information is considered one of the fundamental pillars of democracy and a bulwark against corruption. “These laws, which give individuals a right to access information held by their government, are based on the idea that a government holds information not for itself but on behalf of the people. They are a powerful democratizing force, which help put a face on the bureaucracy and give citizens an important tool to force a sometimes reluctant government machinery to respond to people’s demands.” (Mendel 2012).
The Egyptian government recognized this right as well. Egypt, before the revolution was a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNODC).
The Convention recognizes the need to increase transparency in public administration, including proactive information disclosure on the part of the government and the promotion of public participation, which including the obligation to ensure that the public has effective access to information and to respect, promote, and protect the freedom to seek, receive, publish, and disseminate information concerning corruption” (Article 19 2013, 9).
The new Egyptian Constitution, ratified by popular referendum in 2012, guarantees the right to access information in Article 47:
Citizens have the right to access information, data, statistics, and documents, and to disclose and circulate them. The state guarantees this right. The right is constrained by the inviolability of private life, the rights of others, and exigencies of national security.
The law specifies the principles by which public documents are accessed and archived. It determines how information is acquired and complaints against information denials are logged. It also specifies how accountability for such denials is established.
In his first televised speech as President of Egypt in June 2012, Mohamed Morsi vowed to end corruption in Egypt, stating that corruption and the poor use of resources were the main problems facing the country. Yet, despite this constitutional guarantee and Morsi’s vow, the new administration seems intent on continuing the culture of secrecy that was part of the former regime’s governing strategy. In early April of this year, the Minister of Finance presented the 2013-2014 draft budget to the Shura Council without making it publicly available (Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights 2013).
The Right to Information (RTI) and openness in government is fundamental to a functioning democracy and a stepping stone to achieving other basic socioeconomic rights, such as the right to housing, food, health, and social services. Government openness has the potential to improve the relationship between the state and the citizens as well as public services. It may increase accountability and transparency and reduce government corruption if citizens exercise their right to monitor and analyze the activities and performance of the government.
More than 60 countries have adopted RTI laws over the past 20 years and more than 90 countries have RTI laws on the books. There were rumors of a freedom of information law circulating through the Egyptian Parliament as early as June 2011 (Attalah 2011) and as recently as January of this year (Carr 2013), but still, the legislation has not passed.
However, the way in which RTI legislation is realized is as diverse as the number of societies.
[E]ach [RTI movement] reflects the particular dynamic of the society in question. There are no set rules about which strategy is most effective. Depending upon the context, any model—from a single dedicated NGO, to a broad coalition, to an elite group of lawyers and academics—might be the most effective combination. What is crucial is that civil society groups understand the process of change in their own context, and in particular the incentives for change: Why do traditionally secretive governments and bureaucracies embrace a commitment to openness? (Puddephatt 2009, 2).
One of the most powerful and instructive examples of the influence of a RTI law on local and national politics began with a small campaign in the Indian state of Rajistan. While India has been a democracy for many decades, many constituencies are still underrepresented and critical of electoral politics, yet this example of mobilization from below might still be very useful in the Egyptian context.
As a consequence of a regional and national movement, India passed the Right to Information Act in 2005, requiring that all levels of government respond to citizen requests for information in a timely manner. RTI was first recognized as part of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression by the Indian Supreme Court as early as 1975, but it was through a series of grass-roots civil society movements throughout the country that ultimately convinced the government to create legislation that realized this right in practice.
The RTI movement in India began as a movement to strengthen participatory democratic processes in rural areas of Rajasthan and only developed a RTI agenda when the movement’s leaders realized the importance of government transparency to achieve other socio-economic goals. One powerful technique that led to this realization was social auditing, a process in which communities read government records aloud in a public forum to verify their accuracy.
The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS – Association for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants), a non-partisan people’s movement, was founded in Central Rajasthan in 1990 to press for land rights, minimum wage pay, and improved working conditions for workers and peasants in villages throughout the region (MKSS no date). The group staged protests, sit-ins, marches, and rallies to achieve their goals, but when making wage demands, government officials would tell the group that many of the workers asking for payment were not on the “muster rolls,” or employment and payment accounts, and were therefore not entitled to pay. Workers demanded to see the accounts but, citing the Indian Official Secrets Act of 1923, the officials refused.
In the early 1990s, India went through a period of swift decentralization, granting greater decision-making and fiscal authority to Panchayats (local governments). However, the decentralization reforms were not accompanied by measures to ensure accountability and transparency, therefore corrupt practices proliferated throughout local government (Baviskar 2007). Development projects to assist the poor in rural areas were particularly susceptible to corrupt practices. Officials would falsify records about infrastructure projects that were never completed, overcharge the central government for building materials, include fabricated names on employment accounts and exclude actual workers, and in each case, pocketing the money for themselves (Puddephatt 2009).
In 1994, MKSS made specific demands on the local government to provide copies of the public financial records and employment accounts under the campaign slogan “Our money; Our accounts!” However, without the explicit right to this information, at first, MKSS relied on leaked documents from sympathetic government officials. With the leaked records of development projects in hand, MKSS developed the technique of social auditing. Members would inspect the documents for their accuracy. They would visit the sites of each recorded infrastructure project and cross-check all of the records with the workers in the community. After collecting the information, the records themselves and their investigation results would be read aloud at a public hearing where anyone could challenge the results of the investigation or the records themselves. The group invited journalists, academics, lawyers and government officials to all of these public hearings.
Many government officials returned money that had been stolen when confronted with evidence of their crimes. Others would strike a deal with MKSS to resolve any disputes prior to the hearings to ensure their fraud would not be made public.
It was through these social audits that MKSS realized that the RTI was a fundamental enabling right, essential to the exercise of other rights such as the right to employment, education, or public health services. To demand these rights, they had to learn more detail about the full extent of government programs and accounting. The audits exposed official opposition to the disclosure of public records and reshaped the perceived failures of government projects. The predominant thinking prior to the audits was that workers were lazy, dishonest thieves, but in fact, it was government bureaucrats that were sabotaging projects (Miskar 2007). The MKSS also realized it was important within its own organization to maintain internal democracy and transparency and its non-partisan position. It is supported by contributions from its members and does not accept outside funding support.
The movement continued for several years, refining the social auditing techniques, expanding their demands for information beyond development project records, and broadening their geographic scope to other areas throughout Rajasthan. In 2000, the Rajasthan State Legislature passed the Right to Information Act.
During the early 1990s, many social movements in India were focused on socioeconomic rights issues such as labor rights, displacement, control over natural resources, and an anti-capitalist movement. These movements found the government rarely released or distributed information about their projects and they had to rely on leaked information via documents submitted to the courts or international institutions. Like the MKSS they realized the need to access information and came together at a gathering of more than a hundred activist organizations in 1996 to form the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) (Baviskar 2007).
The strength of the movement was its diversity and the ability of the group to forge horizontal linkages between movements toward a common goal which was “‘transparency in public life, empowerment of people, deepening of democracy, and fighting corruption and malgovernance” (Baviskar 2007, 3). Members of NCPRI included slum-dwellers’organizations, rural development laborers, anti-dam activists, leftist politicians, academics, NGOs, lawyers and legal activists, and an occasional bureaucrat (Baviskar 2007). They adopted the slogan, “The right to know [information] is the right to live.” NCPRI worked on two fronts to promote RTI, first at the national level, to work with the government to draft and pass RTI legislation, and second, in communities to support other individuals and groups trying to gain access to government information.
NCPRI sent their first draft of RTI legislation to the central government in 1996. It was watered-down and eventually introduced in Parliament in 2002 and signed into law as the Freedom of Information Act, but the law was not enforced and failed to bring about any significant change. To build more support for a stronger RTI law and enforcement mechanisms NCPRI organized state and national-level meetings and conventions about RTI, but also had a caravan of activists, villagers and students that traveled from village to village delivering the message of RTI through songs, skits, speeches, pamphlets, newsletters. In 2005 a stronger and more enforceable Right to Information Act was passed and adopted in India. Within two years after its passage, more than 2 million requests for information were made at all levels of government, but some who sought information were attacked, and intimidated and even killed.
The bill is not a panacea but it has given citizens more options to hold their government accountable, demand their rights, and help fuel other national movements such as the anti-corruption movement across India which became nationally significant in the 2000s.
Political demands for freedom in the Midde East have led to the expansion of RTI legislation. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia and Yemen have passed right to access to information laws and Morocco and Egypt have passed constitutional amendments pertaining to the right to information.
Like Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia was highly secretive and corrupt. Although the Tunisian Revolution was a broad civil movement, demanding sweeping changes in the country, the rife corruption in the government and among President Ben Ali’s family provoked the demand for RTI (Andrew-Gee 2011). The Interim Government of Tunisia recognized the need to for transparency and accountability to the public and passed the “Decree on access to the administrative documents held or produced by public authorities” just five months after Ben Ali formally resigned as President, becoming the second country in the MENA region to pass legislation related to access to information after Jordan.
Article 3 of the decree grants access to administrative documents to everyone; Articles 4 and 5 requires the authorities to proactively publish key information of particular interest to the public; Article 6 requires public officials to assist individuals or organizations seeking to access administrative documents; Article 15 states that the acquisition of public information is free of charge excepting the costs associated with supplying the information; and Article 19 gives the public the right to challenge the refusal of a public official to disclose a requested document in court (Article 19 2011).
The Tunisian Draft Constitution (TCD- December 14, 2012) provides each person with the “right to access information without prejudice to national security and/or the rights stipulated under the present Constitution” (Article 18) which will be guaranteed by a Media Authority (Article 128).
Yemen passed the Law on the Right of Access to Information on June 16, 2012 and it was signed by the President on July 1, 2012 to become the third Arab state to have such a law. The law guarantees open public meetings and broad public access to government records. Requests for information can be made to any agency of the executive, legislative or judicial branch, as well as any ministry or municipal government. The law also requires all public authorities to publish information regularly about the types of information they have, on the information requests they receive, and the mechanisms in place to assure institutional objectives and performance results (Centre for Law and Democracy 2012a).
The Centre for Law and Democracy calls the Yemen RTI law “the strongest in the Arab world,” well ahead of both Tunisia and Jordan.
In response to demands for democratic reforms during the Arab Spring, the Moroccan government held a referendum on constitutional reform in July of 2011 that was overwhelmingly endorsed by the public. Article 27 guarantees citizens’ right to information, making Morocco the first country in the MENA region to adopt such a provision (Right 2 Info 2012).
Citizens have the right to access information held by public bodies, elected institutions and bodies performing public service. Access to information can be limited only by the law with the purpose of protecting everything concerning national defense, internal and external security of the State, and private life; of preventing violation of any rights and liberties declared in the present Constitution and protecting the sources and domains expressly determined by the Constitution (Article 27).
In early 2013, the Moroccan government invited consultations on a Draft Law on the Right to Access Information, which will serve as the enforcing legislation of Article 27 of the Constitution.
While Egypt has a provision on the right of access to information in the new constitution (see above), enabling legislation has been slow coming despite demands from civil society and the international community. It was rumored that the International Monetary Fund would not lend money to Egypt until it enacted a Right to Information law, yet the Shura Council has not passed legislation to fulfill the right expressed in the constitution – and as of June 2013, this loan agreement has not been concluded. Yet, civil society and activists will continue to demand a right to information law so that they can be better, more informed citizens and monitor their government and its use (and abuse) of public funds.
There are examples of community organizations in Cairo that have been successful at accessing public information to improve their neighborhoods and hold government employees and contractors accountable. One example is the street paving initiative of the Mīt `Uqba Popular Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. The project began when community members caught news of a 2008 government plan to install natural gas connections throughout their neighborhood. The Popular Committee made demands on the government and the natural gas company to complete the project as well as complete a follow-up initiative to pave the streets after the utility work was completed. Vital to their success was the ability of the Popular Committee to build a strong relationship with local government officials who helped them obtain the necessary information they needed to work with and hold the natural gas company and paving contractors accountable for what they were contractually obliged to complete.
Access to information was critical to the success of the Mīt `Uqba project and several others like it throughout the city. However, communities should not have to rely on personal relationships with government officials to access information that impacts their community. Accessing public information of all kinds should be the right of every Egyptian, without exception. Access to information is the foundation upon which the government can build trust with their constituents, it is the key for citizens to hold government officials accountable to their word and obligations, and it is the starting point for eliminating corruption, reforming government, and fashioning a city that serves the needs and interests of the people.
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 They also passed two others related to freedom of speech: Decrees 115-2011 and 116-2011.
 Translation by Right 2 Info (2011). The original French reads: Les citoyennes et les citoyens ont le droit d’accéder à l’information détenue par l’administration publique, les institutions élues et les organismes investis d’une mission de service public. Le droit à l’information ne peut être limité que par la loi, dans le but d’assurer la protection de tout ce qui concerne la défense nationale, la sûreté intérieure et extérieure de l’Etat, ainsi que la vie privée des personnes, de prévenir l’atteinte aux droits et libertés énoncés dans la présente Constitution et de protéger des sources et des domaines expressément déterminéspar la loi.
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