Access to information in the Arab region

By Antonia Bosanquet, Transparency International’s Arab media specialist.

الوصول إلى المعلومات في العالم العربي

This week sees the launch of ACTION, an ambitious multi-country project which will run until the end of 2013 in the MENA region. The title behind the acronym, Addressing Corruption Through Information and Organised Networking, encapsulates the goals of the project, which will focus on maximising the potential that online communication and contemporary knowledge sharing methods offer for strengthening governance in the region.

The participating countries, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen, are all signatories of the UNCAC, and are therefore obliged by Article 10 of the Convention to ensure access to public information and transparency in administration (not to mention article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

The project was designed before the Arab Spring woke up the world. But it foresaw the dynamic potential of online communication and knowledge sharing that the revolutions revealed. And it will maximise precisely those aspects of online technology which are most essential to democratic change; solidarity and information.

In the Arab world, where a common language and shared history unites over 200 million people, the potential for solidarity and cross-border networking is probably greater than in any other region. The need for focussed networks for sharing information, activities and support between anti-corruption activists will be addressed by ACTION, as will the importance of incorporating the Arab world more effectively into the global struggle against corruption.

The contribution of information to the creation and growth of democracy has many more facets. For example, citizen journalism played an important role in the Tunisian revolution; Wikileaks’ exposure of wide-scale corruption at the highest political levels significantly undermined the legitimacy of the Ben Ali regime. And now in Egypt, the citizen journalist site both reflects and encourages the demand for accountability and fairness that the 25th January Revolution enforced.

Another equally significant form of information is the communication of policy and politics on the part of the state, which is essential for maintaining the trust of the citizens. The state that avoids communicating sensitive business transactions, controversial laws and unpopular tax rulings denies its citizens the possibility of engaging in the political process and ultimately undermines its claims to accountability and democratic governance.

A third aspect is the information about citizens’ rights and responsibilities in their dealings with the state. Whether obtaining planning permission for a house extension, contacting a relative in police custody, or making a decision about a child’s vaccinations, lack of information about the formal administrative structure in which they are moving makes citizens dependent on informal methods of negotiation and ultimately, on the people who embody these.

Access to information underlies citizen empowerment at every level of political life. A society in which information about policy, administration and civil rights is both free and easy to understand might not be free of corruption, but will certainly have fewer possibilities for it to take place, and a much lower tolerance of corrupt activity.

Training on access to information tends to focus on both the supply and demand side. That is, training public officials on how to make public information easily available and raising awareness amongst citizens themselves about what their rights are and how they can use them. In Morocco, where the TI chapter has already done extensive work on access to information, activities have included the publication of a document on citizen rights and responsibilities and lobbying for the introduction of a law on access to information. TI Palestine has also worked on the legislative basis for better public information.

ACTION will build on work already carried out by TI chapters and by activists in the region. The project will focus on bringing the knowledge of young activists into the field of access to information and maximising the innovations that they can offer, through participatory seminars and knowledge sharing sessions. For example, what can the tech-savvy blogger in Egypt teach the state about distributing information? The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has a Facebook site but given the relatively high illiteracy rate and the number of people who have no access to a computer, what other suggestions could activists make for improving state communication? Or for raising the people’s demand for free access to information? Can the Yemeni activist network offer an insight from its own context?

At the same time, the program will also work with young journalists to empower their role as public watchdogs. Legal and technical training will help them to exercise their right to access to information and enable the protection of confidential date or private sources.

During this exciting and fragile period in Arab history, the need for communication and information is more important than ever. At the same time, online possibilities and the readiness to use them have never been so good. It’s the right time to talk, publish, listen and read. It’s the right time for ACTION.

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