The decades of secrecy and the climate of impunity within which Arab governments conducted themselves before the Arab Spring led to an outpouring of people on the streets calling for their rights to be respected. The recent political upheavals across the region demonstrate that people are not satisfied and want to lead dignified lives free of corruption.
One of the quickest ways to stop secrecy and the abuse of power is by giving much greater access to information. Information is power and when people know how much the hospital is supposed to charge, or exactly how the court system works, for example, then people can hold those with power to account. After transparency, accountability is the key to empowering citizens.
Transparency International recently launched a series of reports and an online documentary entitled It belongs to you: Public information in the Middle East and North Africa. The reports and documentary are part of a larger, region-wide project entitled 'Addressing Corruption Through Information and Organised Networking' that examines how citizens can access information in Egypt, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen. The reports highlight existing legal provisions about public information, showing they are full of restrictions and loopholes and do not promote transparency. The documentary looks at the specific sectors of health, the judiciary and diesel distribution and follows the lives of whistleblowers, activists and victims of corruption in these sectors.
In our regional report, we note that Yemen is one of the few countries in the region that has had a strong access to information law, since July 2012 - but it has not been implemented. Other laws in Egypt, Morocco and Palestine did not meet international standards for access to information. Frequently, they allowed people to access information only through personal contacts, and in some countries, secrecy laws or national security issues restricted access to information.
Ahmed Saif Hashid is a humble yet powerful figure in Yemeni political life. He is an independent member of parliament, a leading revolutionary figure and a lawyer. In February this year, Central Security Forces beat him severely with batons along with other protestors. They were part of a continuous sit-in to demand state medical payments for their injuries during the revolution in 2011. Hashid escaped the melee with head wounds but he still continued the sit-in protest - he was on his 81st day when we started filming with him. The government had allocated nearly 180 billion Yemeni riyals (€637 million) to pay for the treatment of those injured and families of those who lost their lives during the revolution. The Central Bank however said that this money was not earmarked and Hashid, representing the injured, is still on the trail of this money.
If a member of parliament who represents the people can't access information, how can an ordinary person access information?" - Ahmed Saif Hashid, Yemeni official and access to information activist
Progress on reforms is slow but governments are recognising that the revolutionary pulse is still alive. Our ACTION project also brought young people together in an event called @ctivate! in Morocco. This event gathered bloggers, social media activists and youth leaders from the region to discuss how online tools can empower the fight against corruption. The participants will continue to work with student groups in each of the four countries, advocating for access to information legislation.
Pushing for access to information laws
Egypt is currently debating a new draft of an access to information law with the formation of a new constitutional committee. Our Moroccan chapter, Transparency Maroc, is still pushing for the legislation of Article 27 in the national constitution which guarantees the right to access information. And in Palestine our chapter AMAN Coalition is using investigations to expose the corruption that marks Palestinians' lives. They have been lobbying politicians in the Palestinian Authority to pass access to information legislation since 2007.
We named the project's films and reports "It belongs to you" because, ultimately, people elect and bring down governments, and people need more information to keep their governments honest. This information should not be secret or unattainable. So much of it is about everyday government operations and policies - it belongs to the people: It belongs to you.
Through the stories of a fruit seller turned whistleblower in Morocco, young doctors in Egypt trying to remedy an ailing health system, a Yemeni theatre group raising awareness and a Palestinian investigative journalist, we hope to show why this crucial right must become a lasting reality.
Resources Visit the special website for 'It belongs to you: Public information in the Middle East and North Africa' Read our blog posts about access to information activism in Egypt, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen See our regional report in English and Arabic Read more about the ACTION project and access the national reports
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.