(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities have largely failed to comply with the country’s Right to Access to Information Law, and the government has not established the body designated to oversee its implementation nearly three years after its passage, Human Rights Watch said today.
The law obligates all government bodies, public institutions, and institutions that perform public functions – collectively referred to as “the administrations” – to publish key legal, organizational, and financial documents. It also gives citizens the right to request information, including decisions, statistics, and contracts, from those administrations and to receive a response within 15 days.
“Lebanon passed a law that in theory advances the right to information, but the failure to establish the oversight body indicates that the authorities aren’t interested in increasing transparency,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The law provides that, in principle, all data should be accessible, with exemptions for national security, foreign relations, personal data, and trade secrets. The administration that receives a request must immediately acknowledge receipt and respond within 15 days, which can be extended for another 15 days if the request is complex. The administration should provide a written justification if it can’t provide the requested information, and the citizen can appeal this decision within two months.
The law considers a lack of response tantamount to refusal and grounds for appeal. Since the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the oversight body, has not yet been established, the State Council – the country’s top administrative court – can rule on appeals.
Since the law took effect in February 2017, Human Rights Watch has submitted 72 information requests to various ministries, courts, and state institutions, and received 18 substantive responses. It also received 5 responses claiming that the administration could not provide the requested information. Only 10 of these responses came within the stipulated 15 days.
In response to a recent request for information filed by two Lebanese nongovernmental organizations about a cabinet decision regarding an electricity contract that would entail the expenditure of millions of dollars of public money, the cabinet’s secretariat contended that the Access to Information Law had not yet taken effect. The organizations filed an appeal with the State Council. They argued that the law states that the government could issue implementing decrees “when necessary,” but that no action of that type was required before the law could take effect.
Gherbal Initiative, a Lebanese group that has been testing the law, requested financial records from 140 government institutions and public bodies in 2019. Only 65 responded, and only 32 provided the requested documents. Assaad Thebian, Gherbal Initiative’s founder, said this response rate of 47 percent is an improvement from a 26 percent response rate in 2018. But he said that the highest authorities, including the offices of the president, prime minister, and speaker of the house, did not comply with the law.
Most administrations currently lack the infrastructure and resources necessary to comply. For example, the law requires administrations to publish annual reports, decisions, and large financial transactions on their websites. But many of them do not have dedicated websites.
Furthermore, most administrations do not have digitized records that would facilitate retrieval of information. When Human Rights Watch requested statistics about criminal defamation investigations and prosecutions from various judicial bodies, the acting cassation prosecutor responded that it would be impossible for his office to provide those statistics, as their records are not digitized.
The president of the Higher Judicial Council told Human Rights Watch on April 5 that he could not provide the number of defamation cases in the criminal courts, as “Lebanese courts do not rely on automation … thus the courts do not currently have the capacity to prepare such statistics.” He wrote that he “welcome[d] any initiative Human Rights Watch can undertake to provide the necessary human and financial resources to extract the requested statistical information from the courts and prepare statistical data and analysis about it.”
Lebanon should urgently establish the National Anti-Corruption Committee to provide necessary guidance to government administrations on the law’s provisions and to hold accountable bodies that do not comply, Human Rights Watch said.
In Lebanon, truth is a defense in some cases of defamation. The lack of compliance with the Access to Information Law compromises the ability of individuals and lawyers to prove the veracity of alleged defamatory statements in criminal proceedings. Lawyers have noted that even when individuals acted with due diligence to ascertain the truth, they are often not able to provide courts with documentation from state administrations to prove their claims in a timely manner.
The right to information is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Lebanon has ratified. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the authoritative interpreter of the covenant, stated in its General Comment 34 that countries “should proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest” and “should make every effort to ensure easy, prompt, effective and practical access to such information.”
Lebanon has also ratified the UN Convention against Corruption, which mandates state parties promote active participation by the public in the fight against corruption by ensuring that they have effective access to information.
May Chidiac, minister of state for administrative development affairs, underscored the role of the access to information law in fulfilling Lebanon’s obligations under the UN Convention against Corruption, saying that implementing the law would enhance transparency and “restore citizens’ trust in their state.”
“Access to information is a pillar of a functioning democracy, enabling citizens to hold their governments accountable and participate in public life,” Fakih said. “Lebanese authorities should stop making excuses and commit the necessary resources to carry out the Access to Information Law.”