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Draft "access to information" law, approved by Lower House of Parliament, actually entrenches government control over information, says AAI

(AAI/IFEX) - On 25 April 2007, the Lower House of Parliament endorsed a draft access to information law that gives government wide powers to control information flow and deprives citizens of access to basic information.

The draft law allows for the establishment of an Information Council whose task - in principle - is to ensure provision of information and the investigation of complaints. However, the council consists of six government representatives, one armed forces representative and two from government-established human rights and information centres.

Discussions of the draft law, which deals with one of the most important freedoms, was done with haste and shrouded in secrecy. It took the designated committee less than half an hour to introduce amendments and less than two hours for Parliament to discuss and endorse those amendments. No specialists or activists were invited to provide their suggestions.

While the bill is hailed as the first of its kind in the Arab region, it highly restricts access to information rather than providing it.

Article 10 of the law prohibits the Council from disclosing information that is discriminatory in terms of religion, sectarianism, race, colour or sex.

Article 13a bans citizens from obtaining information that contains secrets and protected documents.

Article 13 also prohibits citizens from obtaining:
b: classified documents;
c: special secrets related to national defence, state security or foreign policy;
d: information that contains analysis, recommendations, suggestions or consultations which an official possesses, but has not decided upon. This information also includes correspondence and information exchanged among different governmental departments;
e: information and personal files related to people's educational, medical or employment records as well as their accounts, bank transfers or professional secrets;
f: personal correspondence with government departments through mail, telegrams, phone or any other means;
g: information whose disclosure would impact negotiations between the kingdom and any other state or party.

In addition, the law does not contain any articles that inflict penalties on the Information Council or public officials when they do not disclose information to the citizen who requested it. The law does not define secretive or classified information that should not be disclosed. The law also defines the seeker of the information as the person who seeks information "and who has a legitimate interest or a legitimate reason" (Article 7). The law dedicates most of its 20 provisions to the government-appointed council's responsibilities and the rest to the list of prohibited subjects. Rather than breaking taboos related to access to information, the law reiterates the bans on information that exist in other laws.

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