Yesterday, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) teamed up to host an event on the increasing momentum for the right to information in many Arab nations. The panel mainly focused on the creation of draft FOI legislation in Yemen, although it did touch upon broader challenges to an individual’s right to information throughout the region.
At the table were two American lawyers (one being David McCraw from the New York Times) who have worked with groups in the region to help draft legislation on access to information. They were joined by three Yemeni former and current parliamentarians who, as members of the Parliamentarians Against Corruption (PAC), are responsible for the thinking and drive behind this new legislation.
Here are a few highlights from the presentation:
— The Yemeni MPs said they felt as members of the legislative branch, they needed to push this initiative because the government rarely takes up the responsibility of protecting the rights of its citizens. This comment, aimed at their colleagues in the legislative branch as well as members of the executive, came off as quite candid in an otherwise politically sensitive discussion. When later asked what the chances of executive buy-in were for the FOI bill, the Yemenis all backed away from any criticism of the president.
— One of the most contentious issues to be debated during writing sessions for the draft FOI revolved around the monitoring and implementation mechanism. Despite the concerns of international lawyers, the PAC decided that the head of the FOI oversight office would be appointed by the executive but there afterwards protected from removal. While it was not directly stated, this decision comes off as a compromise pre-empting executive-branch concerns over the opening of state documents.
— Ali Ashal (a current PM and member of PAC) laid out many of the specifics of the FOI bill that now stands before in parliament. Under the current draft, all agencies, public or private, who receive any money from the government budget will be subject to the new regulations. Each of these agencies, departments or companies will have their own citizen request board where citizens can claim their right to information. Keeping with the tradition of civil service management in the Arab world, penalties are strictly laid out for every potential violation of the FOI process.
When asked about the level of collaboration the Yemen-based PAC has had with other groups in the region, only Kuwait was directly mentioned. This was surprising considering that Jordan is the only country in the Arab world where a legal right to information is in place. According to the Global Integrity Report: 2008, Jordanian citizens are able to claim their right to information within a reasonable time period and for only the cost of photocopying. However, our Jordanian researcher does draw attention to the government’s ability to hide many documents by classifying them as “secret” — a legal weakness that the PAC of Yemen is working to avoid.
— Norah Mallaney