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Access to Information, a Measure to Fight Corruption and Rebuild Trust

Karim Merhej | Friday, February 7, 2020

Op-ed 2 image (2020)

Three years after passing in Parliament, the Access to Information (ATI) Law largely remains ink on paper. The law grants the right to the public to have access to all documents of public institutions through online channels or through an Information Officer assigned by the entity itself. This law aims to ensure transparency, accountability, and compliance with international standards of information sharing. It is clear that this law was passed by the Lebanese political establishment out of a desire to polish Lebanon’s image on the international stage in order to attract direly needed loans and donor aid rather than out of genuine attempt to stamp out corruption. Since the beginning of the uprising, the theme of ‘regaining trust’ in the Lebanese State has been a constant in speeches and statements uttered by Lebanon’s political elites. A good place to start would be by properly implementing the ATI Law. However, as the Lebanese State has begun to use brute force to quell citizens’ legitimate demands as the uprising progressed, efforts at increasing transparency will inevitably meet heavy resistance and obstacles.

Combating corruption and improving transparency has not been one of the strongpoints of postwar Lebanese governments. Despite having signed and ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in April 2009, and thus agreeing to “promote and strengthen measures to prevent and combat corruption more efficiently and effectively” and “to promote integrity, accountability and proper management of public affairs and public property”. Unfortunately, one may argue that high-level corruption, poor governance, mismanagement of public services and infrastructure, as well as secrecy within the corridors of power have been the hallmarks of the Lebanese State since the Taif Agreement was signed in 1989.

While the demands among the protestors in the ongoing uprising may vary, there is a general agreement that the country’s political elites have at best failed in governing the country, or at worst, intentionally abused their political power to maintain clientelist networks and special interests at the expense of the public good. This has completely broken the trust between citizens and the state culminated in the current citizen led uprising.

Amidst a climate of sharp economic anxiety, multifaceted crises, an apparent disregard of these crises by the political establishment and justified civil unrest, it is worth taking a look at the legal instruments that could enable Lebanon to tackle these crises and through which citizen-state trust could be slowly rebuilt. The ATI Law is one such instrument which allows access to key State information – such as the budgets of public institutions and the way public funds are being spent. This is all crucial to combating corruption and ensuring that the public sector is properly serving the public and key to rebuilding trust between citizens and their State.

The ATI Law was submitted to the parliament in 2009 and was eventually passed in February 2017. On paper, the law’s provisions are clear and straightforward:

  1. Any legal person can request information from the public sector and from private sector corporations contracted by the State (Article 1), be it budgetary data, administrative decisions, contracts with the private sector or other archival documents (Article 3);
  2. Public bodies are mandated to publish key data pertaining to their budgets and decisions on their websites (Article 7), as well as annual reports detailing all the activities carried out throughout the year, as well as the challenges/obstacles encountered (Article 8).

Thus, in theory, it should be easy for watchdogs in Lebanon – be it investigative journalists, non-governmental organizations/civil society organizations (NGOs/CSOs) or concerned citizens – to monitor where public funds are being spent and to raise a red flag whenever malpractice is detected. However, three years after the ATI Law was passed, this scenario remains hypothetical.

The websites of most entities of the Lebanese State remain heavily outdated without any substantial information published regarding their activities or how their funds are spent. Numerous NGOs/CSOs have attempted to take advantage of the ATI Law to request information pertaining to the way public funds are spent; only to be met by civil servants unaware of the Law’s existence or unwilling to provide the information requested, or at time incapable of providing information due to the lack of digitized records. Pretexts for non-compliance are often flimsy, and when the highest public authorities – namely the Offices of the President, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of Parliament – do not comply with the ATI Law, then the state of transparency in the Lebanese public sector becomes seriously questioned and the fight against corruption becomes illusory.

The Lebanese political establishment’s intentional and unintentional mismanagement of the country’s infrastructure and resources have directly contributed to the multifaceted crisis that Lebanon is currently facing. When key policy decisions at all levels of the public sector are taken in secret and without citizens’ input, it is only natural that such a sorry state of affairs manifests itself. The proper implementation of the ATI Law might not be a catch-all solution to the crises Lebanon is facing; in truth, given the gravity of the situation, one can consider it a long-overdue bandage to be applied onto a corrosive atrophic body. Nonetheless, it is crucial that this law be enforced properly and effectively at all levels of the public administration so that a modicum of trust can be established in the State, and that transparency begins to take shape in the public sector. With such transparency, confidence in Lebanon – be it from citizens themselves, the private sector or the international community – can slowly begin to form, and Lebanon can begin to make its way out of the crisis.

Arabic || العربيّة

Karim Merhej, Researcher and Google Policy Fellow, IFI GovLab, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.

In line with its commitment to furthering knowledge production, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs publishes a series of weekly opinion editorials relevant to public policies. These articles seek to examine current affairs and build upon this analysis by way of introducing a set of pragmatic recommendations to the year 2020. They also seek to encourage policy and decision makers as well as those concerned, to find solutions to prevalent issues and advance research in a myriad of fields.

Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.