By: Abdurrahman Shamlan
By 2012, more than 90 countries around the world had the Access to Information Law in place, which establishes the right of, and procedures for, the public to request and receive government-held information.
The first right to information (RTI) law was enacted by Sweden in 1766, and was largely motivated by parliamentary interest in access to information in the King’s possession. Finland was the next to adopt the law in 1951, and was followed by the United States, which enacted its first law in 1966.
Afterwards, many countries followed suit and by 2012, two Middle Easter states – Israel and Jordan – had enacted the law with varying exceptions and measures.
This past Sunday, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi issued the RTI law weeks after it had been passed by Parliament. However, the RTI law has not yet been put into effect.
It’s interesting to note that the RTI law was shelved by Parliament for years before because members of parliament at the time found it controversial and were unable to reach an agreement on it.
The RTI law gives the public – and especially journalists and human rights activists – the right to access information in the legislative, executive, and judiciary bodies, in ministries, governmental authorities and public or semi-public institutions. Blacking out information or giving false information with the aim of misleading citizens who request it is punishable as per the law.
It aims to foster an environment of transparency and accountability in a country, as it entitles the public to access information without any restrictions.
According to the law, every citizen is able to obtain any piece of information he wants unless it falls under exceptions mentioned in the law. Not only will citizens be entitled to access oral information, but they should also be provided with paperwork which documents it.
The law goes as far as to give people the right to attend meeting in any governmental institutions and also to know both the aims of the meeting and why it was held. Only when the meeting is under one of the lawful exceptions will citizens be prevented from attending.
Moreover, government institutions are obliged under the law to release annual reports regarding their working plans, financial accounts, projects, etc.
The law states that an information commissioner will be appointed and that he must provide regular reports to parliament and that he must also attend a number of sessions in order to brief parliament on the information.
Yemeni human rights activists, journalists and lawyers have expressed high regard for the law, saying it would lay the foundation for a country free of corruption, as corrupt officials could easily be spotted. Such Yemeni citizens have also said that it would help the Yemeni media perform better, as journalists would be able to access information without any restrictions hindering their activities.
However, some people have voiced skepticism about the ability to put the information law into effect, arguing that there are many corrupt, influential officials in the country that would spare no efforts to keep the RTI law at a theoretical stage.
Only some journalists and lawyers have knowledge of the RTI law; however, most of the Yemeni public still doesn’t have any idea what the RTI law means or entails. The National Yemen had a difficult time obtaining peoples’ opinions, as the law would first have to be introduced and then explained before any opinion would be forthcoming.
Dr. Biqis Abu Osba, Deputy Head of the Supreme National Authority for Combating Corruption (SNACC), underlined the importance of the RTI law, and considers it to be one of the most important laws to have ever been passed by the Yemeni Parliament because, she said, it would enhance SNACC’s role in eradicating corruption.
“SNACC supported the passing of this law right from the beginning and will continue to be a primary supporter for the implementation of this law on the ground,” she said.
Journalist Iscander Al-Mamari told the National Yemen that “passing this law really represented a major step towards achieving freedom of the press in Yemen.”
“In fact, journalists have been unable to access information due to restrictions and blackouts, especially during last year’s uprising, which saw former President Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquish power to his deputy,” he said.
“With this law in place, media workers, human rights activists and journalists will perform better and carry out their duties without impediments or obstacles” Iscander continued.
For his part, librarian Ahmed Ali Al-Khaledi said the law would help combat rampant corruption, which he said every state institution in Yemen is suffering from. Al-Khaledi went on to say that it would raise awareness among people regarding their rights to access information and to know how officials are carrying out the country’s affairs.
Al-Khaledi thinks that the Yemeni media will soon be able report to the people about previously hidden facts and dirty deals carried out by corrupt officials and that journalists would finally be able to obtain documents that substantiate their claims.
“When the RTI law becomes operational, corrupt officials will think one million times before stealing public funds and transferring them to Swiss banks because they will realize thatif they do that, they would easily be spotted and held accountable,” he added.
Osma Al-Nono, a lawyer, said, “Even though Jordan enacted the law first, the RTI law in Yemen is more effective because the exceptions mentioned in it are very limited.”
However, Al-Nono voiced skepticism about the real-life ability to enforce the law throughout the country.
“I hope the law will be put into effect as soon as possible because, to be quite honest, I don’t think the law will be enforced because of influential, corrupt officials, who will do everything they can to ensure that the law remains in the theoretical stage, never to be translated on the ground.”
Hadi referred the draft law to parliament after making a few changes on some of its terms. While some activists and lawyers think that Hadi’s changes were positive and that they did not negatively affect the law’s core, others said the alterations limited the right to information.
Lawyer Ahmed Al-Khawi, said Hadi’s amendments only served to improve the law, to make it more effective and more practical.
On the other hand, Hakim al-Masmari, editor-in-chief of a local online newspaper, said the amendments limited the right to access information to a small extent, yet he described the law’s passing as a success.
Al-Masmari said, “After receiving Hadi’s comments, Parliament had no option but to pass the law and accept all the comments that Hadi brought forward because they knew that if they did not accept them, the law process would start from scratch.”
“Besides, they realized that the amendments were not major and did not significantly affect the law – that’s why they decided to pass the law,” added Al-Masmari.
According to Al-Masmari, Hadi’s office contacted senior Members of Parliament and convinced them that the changes the President had made to the law were logical and that they wouldn’t harm the press or restrict access to information.