Saturday marks the eleventh anniversary of the International Right to Know Day, globally celebrated by raising awareness on the right to information.
Freedom of information gained momentum over the past decades on the international arena as a fundamental pillar of freedom of speech. It has made its way into international standards of governance as essential for a society’s guarantee of transparency and accountability over the government. Today, about 93 countries have passed right to information (RTI) or freedom of information (FOI) laws.
With a new constitution-making process underway in Egypt, the freedom to access information remains a topic of heated discussion among legislators and of concern to civil society, journalists, researchers and academics.
On Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Amr Moussa, head of the Constituent Assembly, requesting a meeting with the committee’s members to discuss how Egypt can guarantee freedom of speech and the right to information.
The suspended 2012 constitution broadly guaranteed this right to citizens, leaving its conditions to be dictated by law. There have been four legal projects to the drafting of the law on the right to access information since the 2011 uprising, according to Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
He added that the current Constituent Assembly would review the draft laws resulting from these projects in its discussion over amendments to the constitutional article on the right to information.
“We have no doubt that the right will be guaranteed in the new constitution, but whether or not Egyptians will have access to information will depend on the subsequent law,” Eid said.
He added that these projects have been characterised by controversy on the limitations of this right, particularly in regards to certain institutions, like the military, and to issues concerning “national security.”
“We have laws prohibiting information related to military institutions, even if sub-bodies are carrying out economic, industrial and commercial activities that the public has the right to know about,” Ahmed Ezzat, the director of the legal unit at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), said in a previous interview with Daily News Egypt.
“The problem with issues such as the military budget is that the information itself is unavailable, rather than inaccessible, to the public,” Hussein Salama, a political and social researcher, said.
According to Salama, the military budget is listed as a lump-sum in the annual budget, “leaving citizens uninformed of the details as to how the military allocates these funds and how much the military makes for itself on a yearly basis.”
Limitations on the access to information that authorities have deemed matters of “national security” extend beyond the military institution.
To the criticism of many academics and researchers, the law governing the Egyptian National Library and Archives has provisions stipulating that all documents concerned with “the higher policies of the state” may be kept secret from the public for up to 75 years.
An evaluation conducted by the Support for Information Technology Center (SITC) of ministries of health and population, housing, utilities and urban communities, environmental affairs and education in March 2013 reveals the lack of basic access to information in Egypt.
With the maximum score at 104 points, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs achieved the highest score at 44 in the evaluation. SITC noted that it faced difficulty obtaining the most basic of facts pertaining to these ministries that it said have little to do with issues of national security.
Salama noted that the right to access information in Egypt is largely hindered by a grueling bureaucratic process that discourages researchers from obtaining information. He added that according to international standards, it is important that information is made easily accessible to the public.
Under the former regime of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, the latest draft law on the right to access information was presented to the public in May 2013.
The draft was criticized on several grounds, including the broad limitation of access to any information that, if revealed, “may endanger national security, the economy, international relatives, commercial relations of military affairs.” It was also criticized for maintaining the structure of the National Council for Information (NCI), the institutional body handling the RTI law enforcement.
A press statement released by SITC in May 2013 called the draft “unacceptable,” claiming that it “eliminates any opportunity that allows the public to hold the authorities and public bodies accountable.” Other signatories to the statement included prominent historian Khaled Fahmy, AFTE, and professor of economics Najla Rizk.
The statement criticised NCI for lacking autonomy, referring to its membership that mostly includes representatives of governmental and semi-governmental institutions, such as the National Security Council, the Ministry of Defense, the National Council for Human Rights and the National Archives. The draft also controversially dictated that the president would appoint the head of the council.
Ezzat commented that civil society has been calling for the formation of a new council that is independent from the government and would be held accountable to the parliament.
It remains to be seen whether the Constituent Assembly will tackle this myriad of issues restricting the access to information in Egypt. Its controversy, however, leaves little doubt that academics, researchers and civil society will continue to lobby for an assurance in future laws that allow the public free and unadulterated access to the information they need and deserve.