Access to Information: An imperative right at a critical stage in Afghan peace process
The adoption of access to information legislation in 2014 marked a significant step in the safeguarding of this fundamental human right in Afghanistan. Following amendments of the law in 2018, the Afghan Access to Information Commission was created. It has since played an important role in the defense of a culture of transparency, in which all Afghans, be them regular citizens or media workers, are ensured access to the information they need.
Many achievements have been accomplished by the Commission since its foundation. To only name a few, the Commission has since 2018 conducted 92 awareness raising, capacity building and consultative sessions, handled 240 complaints, developed a 5-year strategy which includes a component on strengthening cooperation with Afghan media, signed 7 Memoranda of Understanding with media and civil society, and launched an online access to information system that simplifies ATI requests.
Thanks to the generous funding provided by all MDP donors Multi-Donor Programme for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (MDP), and in particular, Iceland’s suggestion to include Afghanistan as one of the benefitting countries, UNESCO has accompanied Afghan stakeholders in supporting media reform initiatives since 2019. This was done through developing national capacities, facilitating inclusive discussions, and leading advocacy to encourage duty-bearers to develop an enabling environment on the policy level.
Mr Hamdullah Arbab, the Secretary and Spokesperson of the Afghan Access to Information Commission, answers some of our questions about the Commission’s work. Mr Arbab has over 15 years of experience in various international organizations in the areas of good governance, development, anti-corruption and security.
Afghanistan is currently involved in a peace process, but, at the same time, the issue of violence remains prevalent. What hopes do you have in this regard? What risks do you believe could affect the progress achieved in terms of access to information?
Hamdullah Arbab: Although the Commission is not directly involved in the peace talks, we are concerned that if the regime changes, there will be some restriction on access to information and freedom of expression. The AIC has raised its concerns with the High Peace Council to consider access to information and anti-corruption topics in the peace process on the same level as women’s rights, freedom of speech, human rights, etc.
In the case of journalists, there have been regular complaints that they are denied information held by public bodies. Could you tell us more about the challenges journalists face when requesting public information? How does the Commission ensure their complains are addressed and resolved?
We are supporting all citizens and especially journalists in their requests for information. In case public bodies deny their application, they can submit their complaints to the AIC. Unfortunately, we still have the dominance of a culture of secrecy in governmental institutions. It will take some time to bring that behavioral shift in government employees. But it is true that the media is facing challenges, especially when they are asking senior government officials to share their views on daily matters. In order to overcome these challenges, as per AIC law, information that is newsworthy can be provided in 24 hours notice – if not, the requesting media can file a complaint to the AIC.
Has the current situation and the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated these challenges? How has it affected the Commission’s work?
The coronavirus pandemic affected all activities in every sector. In the beginning of the pandemic, the commission called on the public authorities twice through press conferences to share information related to their activities, especially the costs associated with curbing the coronavirus pandemic. The AIC also called on the public, in order to ensure transparency, to submit their complaints physically to the AIC or through its online system in case any public body denied their request.
UNESCO has been accompanying Afghan authorities in raising public awareness and in encouraging media and civil society to play an active role in pursuing the full implementation of the ATI law. How has UNESCO’s support helped in that regard, including through the commemoration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information?
No doubt that AIC considers UNESCO its close ally and partner when it comes to advocacy and awareness-raising on access to information in Afghanistan. The AIC has been in close contact with UNESCO and has joined last year’s celebration of the international day of Access to Information in Kabul. The AIC will be working together with UNESCO Kabul on the implementation of its strategy both in Kabul and at sub-national levels to ensure transparency and accountability in the public sector.