BEIRUT: Lebanon’s public records law has hit a snag, with one of the highest authorities in the government maintaining the nearly 3-year-old legislation cannot be implemented.
Parliament passed the Right to Access to Information Law in January 2017, with much fanfare and after years of debate and negotiation. The law, for the first time, provided a mechanism for members of the public to request data and records from public agencies, and required those agencies, in general, to provide the requested documents within 15 working days.
But implementation has been uneven, with some government agencies complying with the law and others ignoring it. Now, at least one is arguing that the law has not yet taken effect at all.
On June 26, the General Secretariat of the Cabinet issued a decision rejecting a request by two civil society organizations - Kulluna Irada and The Legal Agenda - for documents related to a May 2018 Cabinet decision regarding the Deir Ammar power plant.
Hala Bejjani, managing director of Kulluna Irada, said that the NGO, which participated in last year’s CEDRE conference as a civil society representative, had been trying to follow up on economic issues raised at the conference - chief among them, the issue of electricity.
Specifically, the group was seeking information about a May 2018 Cabinet decision to convert the engineering, procurement and construction contract for the Deir Ammar 2 power plant into a power purchase agreement contract with a build-operate-transfer model, which, Bejjani said, would entail the expenditure of hundreds of millions of public dollars over 20 years.
The organization had filed Access to Information requests with both the Energy Ministry and the Cabinet secretariat, and both were refused.
In its written refusal, a copy of which was provided by Kulluna Irada, the secretariat argued that the public access law could not be implemented because an implementing decree had not been issued by the government and a national anti-corruption commission, and “the legal process has not yet been adopted and has not been approved by the Cabinet.”
It also argued that the law could not be implemented before a National Commission for Combating Corruption was formed.
The secretariat noted that Article 25 of the access law specified that details of the implementation should be determined via Cabinet decrees. It acknowledged that “some administrations have already begun to apply some portions of the law, even before the issuance of the implementing decree,” but said that this “has reflected negatively on the unity of standards to be adopted.”
At a news conference Tuesday, Bejjani said the argument was disingenuous and that, under law, the government could issue implementing decrees “when necessary” but was not required to do so before a law could take effect.
She also pointed out the irony of the argument: “The government is refusing to apply the law because this same government, after 2 1/2 years, has not issued an implementing decree.”
Bejjani said she feared that a refusal coming from one of the highest-level offices in the government would serve as a signal to other public bodies to follow suit.
“It appears as if it’s a kind of circular or code word, which is giving an opportunity to all the public administrations to refuse to respond to requests for access to information without any legal embarrassment,” she said.
“How can we hold to account an agency or municipality that doesn’t adhere to the law if the Secretariat General of the Cabinet is saying that this law cannot be implemented?”
Kulluna Irada and The Legal Agenda filed a complaint with Lebanon’s Shura Council last month, seeking to have the refusals overruled.
They are not the first to run into issues with implementation of the access law. Last year another NGO, the Gherbal Initiative, carried out an assessment of government agencies’ compliance with the new law, sending out requests for information to 133 government bodies.
Only 34 responded to the requests, and only 19 within the legally mandated timeframe.
Gherbal founder Assaad Thebian said Tuesday that the NGO had continued with its monitoring project, requesting financial records from some 140 agencies.
This time, 65 responded, but only 32 provided the requested financial statements. Among those that refused were some of the highest authorities - the offices of the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of Parliament - he said.
He added that the actions of the state contradicted the government’s lip service to accountability measures in recent years. “For the past three years, all political blocs have come out with fictional displays of heroics in passing laws and promising accountability, organization and good governance,” he said, yet still “transparency is missing” and “accountability is missing.”
The General Secretariat of Cabinet could not be reached for comment.
This article was amended on Wednesday, September 04 2019
A previous version of this article said Kulluna Irada and The Legal Agenda had filed a complaint over the matter with the Constitutional Council. The groups filed at the Shura Council, Lebanon's top administrative court. The Daily Star regrets the error.