Stonewalled

A mixed re­sponse: mak­ing use of the new law

Executive Magazine - - LEADERS -

Ex­ec­u­tive didn’t get past se­cu­rity at the Grand Serail. It was March 3. The ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion law was just over a month old, and we were bark­ing ex­cit­edly, un­sure if whether we were even in front of the right tree. In hand were re­quests for min­utes of cab­i­net meetings. We were hop­ing to reach the Of­fice of the Pres­i­dency of the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters. Our part­ing ad­vice from the se­cu­rity of­fi­cial act­ing as gate­keeper was to call back and fol­low up. Call back we did. Re­peat­edly. Since then, how­ever, our re­quests have been ig­nored.

An at­tempt to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion from the Min­istry of Fi­nance was swifter and more de­fin­i­tive. “No,” Ex­ec­u­tive was told by phone (read: no pa­per trail) within one week of mak­ing a re­quest for the Value Added Tax (VAT) and cus­toms rev­enues from mo­bile phone im­ports over the past five years. So far, not so good.

FLOOD THE GATES

After it had been sit­ting in a drawer in Par­lia­ment for nearly 10 years, the leg­is­la­ture fi­nally passed the ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion law in Jan­uary. As Ex­ec­u­tive noted in a spe­cial fea­ture last month, the law man­dates the creation of an anti-cor­rup­tion com­mis­sion (ACC) that would, among other things, ad­ju­di­cate ap­peals when re­quests for in­for­ma­tion are de­nied or ig­nored. It’s a hope­ful sign that Speaker Nabih Berri re­it­er­ated the need for the ACC in late March. We stand with the speaker in call­ing for im­me­di­ate leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate the ACC – not least be­cause we’re un­sure of how to pro­ceed with the Min­istry of Fi­nance stonewalling ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion that can help high­light just how costly the coun- try’s ram­pant mo­bile phone smug­gling is for the trea­sury.

The last week of March brought some more good news. The Coun­cil for De­vel­op­ment and Re­con­struc­tion (which signs large-scale pub­lic works con­tracts on the gov­ern­ment’s be­half) has ded­i­cated a staffer to han­dle in­for­ma­tion re­quests, as the law re­quires. This staffer was wel­com­ing and help­ful, even as­sist­ing Ex­ec­u­tive in sub­mit­ting a re­quest after the pres­i­dent’s of­fice tech­ni­cally closed (full dis­clo­sure: it was around 2:30 in the af­ter­noon on a Tues­day). That very same day, Ex­ec­u­tive re­ceived a late email re­ply from the Min­istry of Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. A faxed re­quest sent March 10 had been re­ceived, and the min­istry’s lawyer was busy re­triev­ing the re­quested doc­u­ments. While we were warned the process “might take some time,” up­dates, the email promised, would be forth­com­ing.

We’re cau­tiously op­ti­mistic at this point. While there are in­di­ca­tions that re­cent talk of a “new era” and prom­ises of long-stalled re­form will prove hol­low, we have wit­nessed that the ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion law is at least be­ing par­tially im­ple­mented. Law 28 of 2017 is an im­por­tant tool, and we en­cour­age more in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tu­tions to make use of it, and go pub­lic with their ex­pe­ri­ences. De­ci­sion-mak­ing in Le­banon far too of­ten hap­pens in a black box. This law is our chance to pry that box open. The more re­quests pile up – and the more in­sti­tu­tions are bom­barded with pleas for in­for­ma­tion – the harder this law will be to ig­nore. This mag­a­zine will keep press­ing, but we need all the help we can get both from fel­low trans­parency ad­vo­cates, and from a prop­erly con­sti­tuted, func­tion­ing, and em­pow­ered anti-cor­rup­tion com­mis­sion.

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