The Access to Information Law brings together UNESCO and media in Lebanon
The right of access to information is enshrined in a number of international instruments, most notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It aims to achieve important goals, mainly securing the right of expression, promoting the correct practice of democracy, contributing to the development of effective and accountable institutions at all levels, fighting corruption, enhancing integrity, and applying the highest standards of transparency, which is a cornerstone for achieving the “Open Government Partnership”.
At a time when the confidence of Lebanese citizens in their state is diminishing in light of severe social and economic crises, the Ministerial Anti-Corruption Committee approved the national plan to implement the Access to Information Law in July 2020, following the promulgation of the law in 2017, in a process closely followed by UNESCO.
In cooperation with the UNESCO office in Beirut and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Lebanese Ministry of Information drafted a media plan to raise awareness about the law, and gathered representatives of most media institutions in Lebanon in July, as part of a consultative meeting to discuss the plan. Caretaker Minister of Information Dr. Manal Abdel Samad Najd, UNDP Resident Representative for Lebanon Celine Moyroud, UNESCO Communication and Information Officer, George Awad representing the Director of the UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut Costanza Farina, President of Lebanon’s Syndicate of Press Editors Joseph Kossaifi, Director General of the Ministry of Information Dr. Hassan Falha, and a number of media representatives took part in the meeting.
The meeting stressed the importance of the law and the role of media institutions in implementing the media plan, as well as the need to raise awareness about it in a simplified language that guides citizens to their rights. Along with the need to establish an e-government to reduce corruption, and help media professionals and journalists access important information, especially with regard to public money and public contracts. The meeting also highlighted the fact that a sense of responsibility should accompany the right to access information.
In her opening speech, Minister Abdel Samad said: “Beirut is seeking justice. What we need today is to access information and know the truth about the Beirut port blast, the murder of the city of life, the life that was stolen from the hearts of its children. Today, I welcome our international partners UNDP and UNESCO as I welcome our media partners, in this consultative meeting on the draft media plan for the Access to Information Law. It is about time that this law sees the light in our public administrations to popularize a culture of transparency, deepen the principles of democracy, and restore the citizen’s confidence in the State and which has been eroded by corruption. There is no doubt that the covid-19 pandemic highlighted to us the vital role of government institutions and agencies. It has also proven that trust in the state and the public institutions is necessary, and it is built through effective performance and good governance. However, in light of rampant corruption and ineffective public institutions, we are facing an pandemic of another kind that is deadlier and more dangerous to our society. We all know that achieving transparency is the shorter path to combat corruption and achieve good governance, which is reflected in an increase in revenues, an increase in the effectiveness of public investment projects, and a contribution to the sustainable development of society”.
She added: “Our meeting today is dedicated to the media, our main partner in raising awareness on how to implement the law and facilitating the understanding of its contents, whether by the ordinary citizen or by the concerned employee or by the competent authorities. Our goal is also to understand the obstacles that hinder the work of investigative journalism in public administrations, and discuss how you can contribute to the implementation of the media plan for the right of access to information, in addition to how to convey the media message in the best possible way in terms of form and content. What we need today is more transparency and a lot of accountability, through expanding the circle of access to information, a better monitoring of the collection and spending of public money, and the achievement of the required reforms in state institutions.”
As for the UNDP Resident Representative, Celine Moyroud, she considered that “the law on access to information is one of our priorities and an integral part of the national anti-corruption strategy adopted by Lebanon”. “It was adopted in the reform plans that followed the explosion of the Beirut port and as part of the full implementation of the right to access to information for recovery”, she said.
Representing the Director of the UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut, George Awad considered that “the role of the Ministry of Information in pushing for the discussion of the draft law is evidence of the ministry’s commitment to democracy by taking practical steps to push for this law.” He added: ” People need access to information to empower themselves to have choices and control over the decisions that affect their lives. The access to information law is also instrumental for the exercise of other human rights, particularly by the most vulnerable whose percentage in the Lebanese society is increasing in light of the current crisis”. In this regard, Awwad announced that “UNESCO will launch, next September, a training program on access to information for media workers.”
“We need an active media community that is committed to spreading awareness about this law through booking airtime for awareness raising productions and specialized interviews, engaging with the government and other stakeholders to implement the law, and reporting and monitoring to make it effective, he said. An access to information regime serves the media, but the media has a responsibility as well. The media explains to the public the access to information law and then takes the lead in making requests and reporting on others findings. Without the leadership of the media houses, editors, investigative journalists, bloggers, columnists and public media figures, the fundamental right to information will not meet its potential for anyone. It is with great anticipation that I look forward to the results of your deliberations to produce a successful and realistic media plan that channels the right efforts into the right direction”.
A discussion session was later held under the title “The Access to Information Law and the draft media plan to support its implementation”, in which the draft media plan was discussed. The head of the Public Relations, Press and Coordination Department at the Ministry of Information, Rola Badr, delivered the plan and former MP Ghassan Mukheiber raised the challenges and difficulties encountered in getting the law passed. He emphasized how difficult it was to establish a culture of anti-corruption and transparency in Lebanon. The former MP mentioned that all public administrations and institutions are obliged to apply the law, including the Presidency of the Republic, ministries, municipalities, as well as various judicial institutions, private companies that manage public utilities and associations of public interest. He reminded that the law gives the right to both Lebanese and non-Lebanese to access information.
Recognizing the significance of access to information, the 74th UN General Assembly proclaimed 28 September as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) at the UN level in October 2019.
The theme of the 2021 International Day for Universal Access to Information will highlight the role of access to information laws and their implementation to build back strong institutions for the public good and sustainable development, as well as to strengthen the right to information and international cooperation in the field of implementing this human right.