The Lebanese Access to Information Law: more transparency, more accountability and what else?

Source: lexismiddleeast.com 

Abstract

The Lebanese Parliament in January 2017 passed the Access to Information Law (Lebanon Law No 28/2017), introduced in 2009. The Law applies to listed public authorities and selected private companies and organisations. It provides for the right for anyone to receive information on request, requires the publication of expenditures, annual activity reports, all implementation orders and rationale of all laws, allows for the protection of personal data and mandates a written rationale for all personal administrative decisions.

Analysis

The 2017 law allows any natural or legal person, Lebanese or non-Lebanese, to access and view the information and documents of an ‘Administration’, in line with its provisions and without abusing this right.

This law is long overdue and in an era where ‘fake news’ seems to have stained the credibility of the press, this law will most probably help enhance the credibility and accuracy of the news and will offer the press and civil society an opportunity to better hold the people’s representatives to account.

This law has also championed the fight against corruption and is aimed at increasing transparency in and from public institutions.

These new ‘rights’ given to citizens, also guarantee by exception to the principle of transparency and access to all information, the secrecy of certain types of information which might be considered vital for public safety and national security reasons. The restrictions on full access to information are related to the following:

• Information which may be classified as national defence, national security and public security secrets.

• The management of the State’s secret external relations.

• Information which may be harmful to the financial and economic interests of the State and to the integrity of the national currency.

• The private life of people as well as their physical and mental health.

• Professional secrets protected by law such as lawyers’ and commercial secrets.

A list of documents are considered not available in a limited list, such as the following:

• The pre-trial proceedings of an ongoing investigation cannot be disclosed, nor proceedings of secret trials and trials related to juveniles and personal status.

• The minutes of the private meetings of the Parliament and its committees, unless otherwise decided, nor the deliberations of the Council of Ministers labelled secret.

• The preparatory and administrative documents which have not been completed.

• The consultative opinions issued by the Council of State, except by the relevant parties in the context of a trial.

Drawing a comparison with other jurisdictions who have championed this cause, Sweden was the first country to adopt this right through the Freedom of the Press Act of 1776. The ‘principle of publicity’ states all information and documents produced or received by public institutions (local or central Government and all public institutions) must be available to all citizens. This principle also states all public institutions must make every effort to give any person any information they may wish as soon as possible.

Finland was the first to adopt modern legislation on the same issue in 1951, which defined the conditions for access to information (or so-called freedom of information) in public institutions. The US adopted the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 and France adopted a law providing citizens with access to administrative documents in 1978.

In 1990, only 13 countries had access to information laws, but by March 2004 more than 50 countries had adopted comprehensive laws to facilitate access to Government records. By 2010, more than 85 countries had adopted this type of law, including Jordan, the first country in the Middle East to have passed the Information Access Act in 2007.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, guarantees the right to freedom of expression and information according to the following criteria: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to embrace opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas by any means without being bound by geographical boundaries.”

Articles 10 and 13 of the International Convention against Corruption focus on the right to access information. Although Lebanon had ratified the Convention on 16 October 2008, it still needed the tools to enforce it. With the 2017 law this has now changed. Information disclosure in Lebanon will no longer depend on the willingness of individuals in the relevant institutions. Citizens can now join in the decision-making process, take part in public debates while having all the facts and being familiar with the Government’s activities. There was a need for a legal framework which allows Lebanese citizens to monitor the decision-making process in the Government more effectively and the Access to Information Law is a first step in the right direction.

Stay tuned for a full Legislation Commentary written by Ghassan Moukaihber, Lawyer and former Member of the Lebanese Parliament who contributed to the drafting of the law and strongly advocated for it in Parliament and the political sphere.

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