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24 November 2016

Government must ensure access to basic information

By: Daoud Kuttab
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Despite the fact that Jordan was the first country to have legislated an access to information law, in 2007, and was the first Arab country to join the Open Government Partnership, most ministries are not very transparent.
 
Allowing the free flow of information is still the exception and not the rule.
 
One can still get almost anything one needs through personal contacts with higher up officials rather than by applying formally.
 
An official armed with the rights granted by the access to information law might not get one very far if the legal adviser at a particular ministry feels that the information one is seeking should be kept secret.
 
Information as mundane as the number of males and females working at a particular ministry, or the names of companies that already have been awarded tenders of a value lower than JD250,000 — tenders over this amount must be, legally, made public and are available online for anyone to see — may be denied.
 
Ironically, many documents that Jordanian government agencies refuse to release under a variety of reasons can be found on the World Bank or IMF websites as part of country reports.
 
Another irony is that each ministry operates separately. So one might get the information one asked for from a particular ministry while the very same type of information is denied by another ministry.
 
There are no general guidelines for all ministries, and despite repeated requests for the prime minister to speak out on the need of all ministries to be transparent, this has not happened, allowing ministers to do as they please.
 
If one’s request for information runs into obstructionist “legal advisers”, the current law allows one to complain to the Information Board, which is supposed to rule on whether the request is legitimate.
 
If one is unhappy with the ruling, one can go to court.
 
The problem with the Information Board is in its set up and the way it works.
 
The board is headed by the minister of culture, and includes the head of the National Library, a representative of each of the ministries of justice and interior, and a representative of army guidance
 
The only position left for a non-governmental agency is for the National Human Rights Centre.
 
During Abdullah Ensour’s premiership, minister of culture Lana Mamkegh never attended any session.
 
When asked, she replied that she does not feel that she should deal with such issues.
 
Mousa Burayzat, the director of the Human Rights Centre, never attends either, because he feels that the centre must stay neutral and not take sides.
 
As a result, the two possible persons who can provide a slight balance to the make-up of the Information Board are often absent, leaving security and government officials to rule, usually against releasing information.
 
Conflict of interest is another problem that is not addressed in this council.
 
A recent request by journalist Musab Shawbkeh to the ministries of justice and culture to release the names of companies that won tenders from the ministries was rejected by representatives of the ministries.
 
While the access to information law requires a person of interest to actually ask for information, the Open Government Partnership operates on a totally different paradigm.
 
The OGP assumes that the rule is to release information, rather than hide it, and requires government agencies to voluntarily and regularly participate in easing the flow of information.
 
The government, led by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, is leading the effort to ensure compliance with the basic tenets of this commitment made by the government.
 
But even with this partnership the results are not very positive.
 
Government agencies are still reluctant to release information and must constantly be prodded to do so.
 
Recently, the Ministry of Planning organised meetings with Jordanian civil society organisations to get their input on a new action plan which the ministry is proposing, which will help increase the flow of information.
 
But even the ministry itself has not been forthcoming in releasing information about ministry tenders.
 
Enacting transparency laws and joining prestigious international partnerships is often carried out with the aim of presenting a positive picture of the government, in the hope that this will improve the country’s ranking in transparency indices.
 
While this has initially happened, the fact is that the lofty ideals made public upon legislating these laws and partnerships are rarely translated in practice.
 
Efforts to change conservative information control require political will and constant reminder by the very top officials of the need to be transparent and open about what the government is doing.
 
The term civil servant reminds us all that government officials are in fact employees of the citizen whose taxes ensure their salaries are paid.
 
Until civil servants understand that they are obliged to respond positively to citizens’ request for information, we will continue to spin our wheels about reform and transparency.
 
The Hani Mulki government, which is seeking a vote of confidence of the 18th Parliament, must remember that confidence in government is a two-way street.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net



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