A recent report from the World Bank Institute lauds Morocco and Tunisia for improving citizens’ access to state records but notes both countries still have ways to go to guarantee the free flow of information.
Said Almadhoun, an official with United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), issued the August 3rd report as part of a regional dialogue on “Advancing Access to Information in the Middle East in North Africa: Supporting Coalitions & Networks,” and included an overview of the latest developments in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.
As far as Morocco is concerned, the report noted the country introduced a number of legal reforms, including the passage of the Arab world’s first constitutional guarantee of the right to access information. The reform was part of the package of constitutional amendments adopted in July 2011.
The report stated that Morocco has previously approved an amendment to the press and publication code which included a general article on accessing information. The government also approved the statute of professional journalists, which stipulates journalist’s right to access the sources of news.
Furthermore, Morocco’s Archive Act also guarantees the legal right to access archives. However, this institution has yet to begin work and no governing regulations establishing implementation mechanisms have been drawn up.
According to the report, Morocco has a number of laws guaranteeing the rights of individuals and groups to access information, including the right of citizens can resort to the courts in case of complaints. In case of corruption, the law gives Parliament the right to conduct investigations and inquiries and to discuss results in a special session that enables citizens to view them.
Almadhoun’s study also said that Parliament has already published the results of investigations of some committees in some cases, but work on this issue was not continuous, and no results of investigations of any other important events have been published.
However, the report said that the new laws have a number of shortcomings in terms of ambiguity, penalties and punishments, and that they may be stalled due to certain legal provisions, professional secrecy and national defence secrets. Media and information activists have called for reviewing the civil service system whereby disclosure of information would be the rule and its blocking would be the exception.
Moroccan Communications Minister and government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi has said work on a bill regarding access to information began several years ago with a committee representing several ministries.
The proposed law lays out guidelines for releasing information, establishes penalties for failing to provide it and lists exceptions to the act. “These fields exist in all laws governing access to information, and therefore, Morocco is about to complete an important step in legislation on freedom to access information as per article 27 of the constitution,” the minister said.
In addition to this law, there are other laws intersecting with it, such as protection of personal data law and the Archives Act, according to El Khalfi.
Meanwhile in Tunisia, the report noted that Tunisia’s interim government began a reform process by issuing a decree stating that “all natural persons or legal entities have the right to access administrative documents”.
Tunisia then introduced an amendment to the decree binding public authorities to fully comply with the rules within two years.
However, the decree included a number of weaknesses, such as the lack of an institutional entity to help implement it and a supervisory board independent from public authorities. This is in addition to weak penalties for violations and poor consultations with different stakeholders.
Tunisia has enacted laws on the freedom of press, printing and publication; the right of journalists to access information, news, data and statistics from different sources; and the right to audio-visual communication. The country also has a law guaranteeing access to state archives and legislation on administrative courts that enables individuals to complain against misuse of authority.
The report added that public awareness about the legal right to access information is limited and that the campaign is still at its early stages, activists to help the government make this transition from the culture of secrecy to the culture of openness and transparency.