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Participants at ARTICLE 19 event map out freedom of information agenda

The right to know in the Middle East - Building an agenda for a culture of transparency

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 21 December 2009 - Sixty activists, parliamentarians, journalists and lawyers from across the Middle East and North Africa mapped out an 'agenda for action' for freedom of information in the region.

A two day event, organised by ARTICLE 19 with the support of International Media Support (IMS) on 14-15 December 2009 in Amman, Jordan, brought together activists who shared initiatives from across the region and explored new approaches for combating an entrenched culture of secrecy in policy and practice.

Jordan is the only country in the region to have enacted legislation on Access to Information but several other countries in the region have active campaigns for similar laws. In Yemen, at least two years of campaigning by journalists, civil society activists and members of parliament should result in the Yemeni parliament discussing and approving a final draft of a law in February 2010.

The passing of a law is important but only one part of the picture. Putting it into practice is crucial and difficult as the current experience in Jordan demonstrates where some two years after the law was introduced, very few requests have actually been made and without effective follow-up.

As well as learning lessons from progress across the region and discussing next steps, including the need for civil society and the media to request information through the law, participants outlined a range of other initiatives to strengthen transparency that could be duplicated elsewhere.

Delegates from fields as diverse as environmental protection and disability rights as well as anti-corruption activists shared not only the reasons why transparency is important for their work but how, from different perspectives, they are fighting for free access to information for all members of society.

Environmental activists in Egypt use the Consumers Protection Act of 2006 to request and access environmental information to enable civil society and members of the public to participate in the decision making process on environmental issues. The law can also assist people in using their right to file lawsuits to contest environmental violations that affect their lives. Disability organisations implement an information and revenue strategy to track support for people with disability. Anti-corruption activists throughout the Middle East are lobbying their governments to speed up the process of enacting access to information laws and otherwise spread the culture of transparency in the region. Delegates also heard about initiatives from outside the region, where RTI activists in Brazil make use of provisions in environmental and housing laws to seek information and increase transparency of public institutions, and discussed how these could be replicated in their countries.

"With the willingness of those working on different issues, from different countries, to build bridges and share their innovative approaches, the conference has been an exciting opportunity to re-energise a movement for a culture of openness and transparency across the Middle East and North Africa," said Dr Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

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