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Parliament begins to discuss freedom of information law
MP Robert Ghanem. (The Daily Star)
MP Robert Ghanem. (The Daily Star)
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BEIRUT: Debate began in Parliament Wednesday on a draft law that would empower citizens to request information from all public bodies. The law was drafted in 2009, but had been overlooked in Parliament until new lobbying efforts led West Bekaa MP Robert Ghanem to put the issue on the agenda of the Administration and Justice Committee.

Under the bill anybody would have the right to request data held by public bodies, including judicial courts and private institutions in charge of running public utilities, government-linked corporations and other associations that deal with issues of public interest. There are exceptions for, among other things, information regarding national security and individual privacy.

Each body would be required to appoint an individual responsible for such requests, and to respond within 15 days. The bill also stipulates the automatic publication of regulatory decisions and the annual reports of administrative bodies.

MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who was the chairman of the bill’s drafting committee, said Wednesday the initial response within Parliament had been positive, with an agreement being made to appoint a subcommittee to review the draft in order to move it forward.

“There are details that might be discussed, like any bill,” he said.

“But I think there is a general understanding that there is a need for this.”

More than 90 countries already have some form of freedom of information legislation. Moukheiber said such a law was a key step in combating corruption in Lebanon. The country ranks 134 out of 183 countries on the corruptions perceptions index, according to Transparency International.

“This law is important because it will add a layer of transparency into the operations of the Lebanese public administration,” he said.

“The more transparency, the less corruption, that’s the general rule.”

Imad Mhanna of the Lebanese Transparency Association said the law would be vital in providing journalists with better tools to investigate public bodies.

“It’s a big problem right now. Even if you want the most basic information and documents it’s very hard not to resort to bribery and corruption,” he said. As a result, he said, “most of the information is window-dressed, it’s manipulated and not totally credible.”

“Every democratic and developed country has an access to information law, so if we want Lebanon to move in that direction we need this,” he added.

But further steps, including protection for whistleblowers, would be necessary to improve transparency. Tony Mikhael, a lawyer with Maharat Foundation, which works to reduce restrictions on journalism, said the law was just the beginning. “We have other steps that we need to advocate for,” he said.

“We should train journalists on how to use the law because the law alone can’t have the impact that we want to achieve,” he added.

The organization lobbying for the law, the National Network for the Right to Access Information, has stepped up its advocacy efforts. Members of the network are set to meet with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri Monday, Moukheiber said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 27, 2012, on page 4.
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