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Palestinian Cabinet to consider new law providing greater access to government documents

A draft law on the right to access information has languished for years without being presented to the president's office, so supporters of the proposal have formed a coalition to press for movement on the measure.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — For years now, the Palestinian Cabinet has been sitting on a draft law about the rights of citizens and journalists to access government information. Some speculate the politicians fear relinquishing their grip on such information; others think the Cabinet has just been working on more important issues.

Parliament members say they have made efforts to approve the draft since 2005, when it was introduced to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and was approved in its first reading.

More recently, Rafiq al-Natsheh, president of the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission, submitted the draft law to Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in December 2013, to be then submitted to the presidential office for approval. That month, Hamdallah said, “The Cabinet is working on the draft law on the right of access to information to guarantee press freedom in Palestine and to embrace the spirit of transparency and accountability in the public institutions.”

Natsheh said during a workshop with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on Oct. 19 that he “does not see any justification for the delay to approve the law, particularly since all examinations in this regard were completed.”

Several civil society institutions working to fight corruption and protect human rights have set up an alliance, Khaberni (Tell Me), to pressure decision-makers to approve and implement the law. The alliance, formed July 2, consists of the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN), the Media Development Center at Birzeit University, Al-Haq Organization and the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate.

The objective is to promote the draft law and raise awareness of the importance of the people’s right to demand information and accountability in public affairs.

Fadel Soliman, manager of the media and capacity building unit at AMAN, told Al-Monitor of one obstacle to winning approval for the draft law: "Officials are not convinced of the importance of the law and consider information their source of power. Therefore, they are not in favor of disclosing [information] and prefer to keep it hidden, as to not give power to the media, citizens and civil society.” Some ministers feel threatened by the proposal, Soliman said.

"Those hindering the enactment of the law are either simple-minded, corrupt or fearing for their post," he said.

Following armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas on June 7, 2007, the PLC stopped operating, which resulted in President Mahmoud Abbas monopolizing legislative authority and issuing decrees. Under Article 43 of the Basic Law, when the PLC is not in session, the president of the Palestinian National Authority has the right to issue decrees if they are necessary and cannot be delayed. Once the PLC meets again, it can revoke the decrees.

Mousa Rimawi, general director of MADA, told Al-Monitor, “The alliance was given no official answer by the government on the reasons why the law has not been submitted to the president. We delivered a letter to the prime minister three months ago in order to meet with him and get a clarification in this regard. There has been no reply so far.”

Rimawi said, “We have noticed that the officials fear the approval of the law, because of the political situation in Palestine, the continuation of the occupation, the lack of understanding of the law and confusion between private and public information on the part of the officials.”

Some jurists believe the law must be approved because Palestine has signed international treaties, most notably the United Nations Convention against Corruption on May 13, 2014. The general director of Al-Haq, Shawan Jabarin, told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian official authorities were not aware of the nature of the obligations stemming from joining a number of international conventions.”

Approving the law is an “international obligation and commitment that Palestine should fulfill" and taking action should be considered a high priority, he said.

“I do not know why some fear the law," Jabarin added. "The damage is not caused by the information and facts, but rather the lack of understanding.”

Abbas' legal adviser Hassan al-Awri told Al-Monitor the law hasn't been submitted to the president's office yet because more important matters are taking precedence.

“After the PLC stopped convening, 110 new decrees or amendments were issued by the presidential office. Some priorities have perhaps delayed the issuance of this decree,” Awri said.

AMAN's Soliman said the law, if implemented, would have many benefits. 

“The approval of the law will promote transparency and accountability, and will convince the international community of our ability to build a democratic state that abides by international conventions. It will help researchers access information and figures to come up with recommendations to decision-makers. It will provide journalists with an opportunity to introduce facts to the people, which will allow the people to take part in public affairs management.”

Rimawi of MADA said, “The right of access to information is stipulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19, and is guaranteed to all citizens. It allows journalists and citizens to develop a general perspective based on the facts and figures, not on rumors, so as to ensure the participation of the community in the drafting of the government’s public policies.”

Al-Haq's Jabarin said the law would result in "social accountability for all public policies" and provide information from official sources. That, in turn, would help citizens and communities develop policies based on informed decisions regarding public issues.

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