After 9 years of collaboration between civil society and government agencies, the Lebanese parliament finally passed the Access to Information (ATI) law in February 2017. The law gives the right to any natural person, whether a Lebanese or a foreigner or a legal entity, to access information, thereby pushing for greater government transparency and integrity in public administrations and private entities that control public assets or provide public services.
Although the law grants the right to access information held by central and local government administrations, in practice, various implementation obstacles remain. Citizens are not familiar with the law and its components and there are currently no clear nor structural processes that guarantee the effective implementation and enforcement of this right.
For journalists, civil society and local government the provision of the law has been difficult to understand and to use when requesting information from the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities and the Ministry of Justice. Providing accessible guidance for non-experts to learn the procedures of the ATI law can assist in implementing a better and more transparent rule of law in Lebanon.
In March 2019, DRI organised three awareness-raising workshops, in collaboration with Gherbal Initiative, to clarify the structures and processes of the right to information. DRI sought to expand the execution of the law by engaging with journalists, media influences, civil society organisations as well as representatives of municipalities and municipal unions.
The three sessions brought together 74 participants, with more than 50% of women participation. The first session, attended by journalists and media influences, many of whom were unfamiliar with the ATI law, expressed how they faced difficulties in their investigations on topics of interest, primarily, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing.
The second and third sessions, witnessed a lively debate between Civil Society Organisations, Municipalities and Municipalities Unions over the process of publishing information, public service delivery and the engagement of citizens in public decisions.
Nashat Hamieh, Mayor of Sarba, highlighted the importance of knowing the best practices to render the municipal decisions accessible to everyone to increase the level of trust between the municipality and the electorate. Participants from grassroots organisations, such as the People’s Anti-Corruption Observatory, expressed their interest in this law to continue their effective investigations on the recent events of corruption.
The sessions were designed to convey an in-depth, hands-on knowledge of the ATI law and more importantly provide the participants with means to lead investigations on corruptions and obtain information from the national government and local authorities.
During the session, DRI Country Representative André Sleiman presented DRI’s findings from its nationwide survey on public service delivery, particularly focusing on accountability and citizen participation. He emphasised the significance of the “Municipal Law” and the “ATI Law”, in terms of allowing the citizens to be informed about and participate in municipal decision-making.
This can be through ad-hoc consultative committees, citizens approaching the municipality to take up a public matter, or requesting municipal decisions and financial information. Sleiman concluded that access to information requests may encourage local administrations to digitalise their data.