The possibility that Palestine will soon have an access-to-information law is looking promising. Concrete steps by the Palestinian government and a public advocacy campaign are being taken to prepare for such a decision.
Despite the Palestinian Legislative Council being dormant for seven years due to the internal Palestinian split, Ramallah is poised to pass a much improved access-to-information law, a draft of which has recently been circulating in public forums.
The 41-article draft law has received a positive evaluation from the international nongovernmental organization Article 19. The NGO welcomed the draft law and said it has many “positive features,” while suggesting a few changes to bring it into full compliance with international standards and best practices.
Before the council’s suspension, a draft access-to-information law was made available for discussion. But political paralysis put the law on hold until it was recently revived by Palestinian media activists.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) has taken upon itself the responsibility of fighting to improve the draft law and advocating for its approval. In 2012, MADA organized a public campaign that attempted to bring together civil society activists, parliamentarians, access-to-information experts, journalists and Palestinian government officials.
The result has been a much-improved draft law and a decision by then-Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to ensure that the law is scheduled in the 2014 legislative calendar of the Palestinian government.
A public campaign in 2012 titled “Information is Power” featured billboards and ads in newspapers, radio and TV advocating for Palestine’s need of progressive access-to-information legislation. Advocacy efforts for the new draft law included workshops and public events at all Palestinian universities. Discussions took place at Hebron University, Al Quds University and Al Najah University in Nablus. The visits included the anti-corruption commission and its head, Rafiq Natsheh.
The new Palestinian government headed by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has also supported the access-to-information initiative by publishing the draft, as amended by MADA, on the prime minister’s official website Feb. 11.
Shortly after the Hamdallah administration’s decision to publicize the draft law, a new series of meetings, discussions and public debates were held, encouraging Palestinians to become involved in the campaign with the hope of it being approved and eventually signed by President Mahmoud Abbas.
A public event was held Feb. 26 at Bir Zeit University and later broadcast in full on Palestine TV. Meetings were also held with top officials, including Hanan Ashrawi, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s culture and information department.
There are a number of positive features in the current draft law as published on the Palestinian prime minister’s site. It imposes an obligation on public bodies (Article 1), especially those receiving state funds (Article 2) to provide information upon request. The granting of information is not to be limited, and will be accessible by any person irrespective of nationality, citizenship, age or other characteristics (Article 2). It obliges all public institutions to appoint a person to handle access-to-information requests (Article 4) and requires that such officials receive proper training (Article 6). The draft law requires institutions to respond to requests in a relatively short time of seven days (Article 13). It appoints an independent information commissioner (Article 27) with the right to examine appeals against denial of requests (Article 30) and whose decisions are binding (Article 30).
Article 19 points out that among its deficiencies, the draft law doesn't provide enough protection to whistle-blowers, and exceptions to the law do not comply with international standards. It also complained that the commission can be a politician, and that there is no requirement of integrity or professional competence, or a transparent method for choosing the commissioner. This leaves the decision-making to the president, without any criteria, thus possibly allowing for political appointees rather than an appointment based on merit.
Access-to-information laws are credited the world over with improving transparency and fighting corruption. Countries' rankings in the transparency index are improved once a country passes such a law. Transparency International makes the connection very clear, using a quote from its late co-founder, Jeremy Pope: "There is an obvious link between access-to-information and low levels of corruption," he said in 1998.
If approved within the coming months, the Palestinian law could become the fourth in the Arab region. Only three Arab countries have passed access-to-information laws. Jordan got the ball rolling in 2007, but its law is generally perceived as toothless. Yemen and Tunisia have passed much stronger laws in the aftermath of the Arab Sring. While the approval of an access-to-information law in Ramallah will be a huge step forward for transparency, such a law will not be of any use to Palestinians in Gaza at the present time. This will remain the case while Hamas, the de facto power in Gaza, refuses to recognize Palestinian laws passed without the participation of the suspended Palestinian Legislative Council.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article linked to the Palestinian Authority’s 2012 access-to-information law. We have since updated the article to link to the draft from 2013, which has been circulating in public forums.
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