Access to information

Providing citizens access to complete, objective, clear and reliable government data and information is a cornerstone of open government. In fact, having an access to information law in place or constitutional provisions that guarantee access to information is an eligibility criterion for countries to become a member of the Open Government Partnership (Open Government Partnership, n.d.). More than 100 countries worldwide, including 65% of countries in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region and all OECD countries have passed access to information (ATI) or freedom of information (FOI) laws (OECD, 2016a). At the local level, access to government information is a crucial condition for civil society organisations and citizens for holding local authorities to account for the delivery of basic needs and services and take an active stance in the development of their communities. Access to information is of particular concern for marginalised groups in society such as the poor, women, youth, disabled, and ethnic minorities.

Jordan was the first country in the MENA region to enact an access to information law in 2007 (Law of Access to Information No. 47/2007) and has signed various international conventions that prompt the country to make available government information to the public. The 2007 law obliges public officials to facilitate access to information and guarantee the disclosure within 30 days as of the date following the date of request submission (Law of Access to Information No. 47/2007).

When filing a request, each requestor is required to stress his/her name, domicile, profession and any other data that the board may deem necessary (Article 9). The lack of the opportunity to submit information demands anonymously can discourage the effective

use of the law in practice, in particular when the requestor must fear any form of retaliation from the request. Another provision that may limit its full impact is that, if the request is not answered by the authorities within the time frame foreseen by the law, it shall be deemed rejected (Article 9). The requester shall bear the cost emerging from the photocopy of the requested information (Article 11). Finally, despite Jordan’s pioneering role in adopting an ATI law in the region, Article 7 of the law has caused criticism as it places the burden on the shoulder of the information seeker Al-Dabbas (2008). It states that every Jordanian has the right to obtain information if the requestor has a lawful interest or a legitimate reason. In all OECD countries, the principle of maximum disclosure applies where exceptions are based on the class test (e.g. national security, international relations, personal data, commercial confidentiality, public order) or the harm test (e.g. persons, defence of state, commercial competitiveness) (OECD, 2011).

An amendment to the law in 2012 granted non-Jordanians access to information and enlarged civil society representation in the Information Council which is in charge of validating and adopting information requests, considering complaints, and approving annual reports. The amendment stipulates that the annual report on the implementation of the law shall be reported to the Prime Minister and both chambers of the Parliament. The response time to information requests and appeals was reduced from 30 to 15 days in order to meet international standards (usually within 20 working days or less in OECD countries) (OECD, 2016a).

Despite the improvements that the amendments introduced in the law, major impediments continue to hamper its effective use in practice:

  • • Existence of restrictive legislation,3 in particular the provisions in the Protection of the State’s Secrets and Documents Law No. 50 (1971), which can supersede the law.
  • • In 72% of OECD countries (in 2010), proactive disclosure is required by ATI laws for certain categories of information. However, no such clause exists in Jordan. The law protects all information that is “classified”, “secret” or “protected by other legislation” (Article 13). The lack of a clearly defined set of circumstances has made it more difficult for citizens to exercise their right to information in practice.

The law does not identify a body in charge of classifying information and documents nor an independent agency to verify and review the classification system. Reportedly, different standards have been used by different public entities.

In 2010, 25 out of 31 OECD countries apply their ATI or FOI laws at the subnational level (see Table 4.2), acknowledging the importance of granting citizens the right to request information from local authorities. In Jordan, the scope of the ATI law does not cover actors at the subnational level. As it presents the space where policies and people meet, access to reliable government data and information is of critical importance at the local level. It is a precondition for the media, CSOs and independent state institutions to exercise scrutiny over the delivery of public services and ensure that public resources are spent for their intended purpose. In the process of aligning existing regulatory frameworks with the decentralisation laws, Jordan could consider amending the law to extend its scope to the subnational level and address the obstacles to its effective use in practice.

Table 4.2. OECD countries: Breadth of central government freedom of information laws (2010)

Level of government

Central

31

Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States.

Subnational

25

Austria, Belgium, Canada (provincial/territorial legislation), Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and United Kingdom.

Source: OECD (2011), Government at a Glance 2011, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.r787/gov glance-2011-en.

In the process of extending the right to access information to the subnational level, activities to raise awareness could take new and innovative forms. For a community of practice emerge, a broad alliance of elected local authorities, media outlets, CSOs and community associations and members could be integrated in activities which could take the form of a film projection as recently organised in four universities around Jordan with the support of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO, n.d.). Moreover, the Information Right Now! campaign (2012), launched by the European Youth Information and Counselling Agency (ERYICA) and the Council of Europe, has proven that creative approaches can be successful in involving different groups in society, including youth. The campaign involved youth and youth workers in meetings with the presidents of the municipality councils in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, information fairs in Croatia, and street art festivals in Sweden (OECD, 2016b).

 
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