Access to information: From paying lip service to paying attention

By Sayed Ikram Afzali
Executive Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan
Chairman, Oversight Commission on Access to Information

President Ghani signed off the Access to Information Law in 2014, one of his first steps in office. This had created a lot of hope among the civil society actors including the media. However, President Ghani has consumed half of his tenure in office and there are still fundamental challenges faced by the Afghan citizens to access the information held by the government. These challenges include (1) weak legal framework (2) lack of government cooperation to implement the law, and (3) a culture of secrecy and information mismanagement that prevails over and across government institutions.

The current Access to Information Law is one of the weakest in the region. It has received a score of only 77 out of 150 due to many bottlenecks in requesting procedures, too many exceptions without applying any “harm test,” loopholes in appeal mechanisms including lack of administrative and budgetary independence of the Oversight Commission on Access to Information (OCAI), and a very weak sanctions regime.

The government did not provide even minimal support to the OCAI in the initial two years. The commission would not have existed without the commitment of the commissioners and support by the international partners including InterNews, USIP, and Democracy International. Support from international partners enabled the commission to launch public awareness campaigns, organize monitoring visits to public bodies, and train Public Information Officers (PIOs), civil society reps, and journalists. The commission has also been able to chart out a national strategy for access to information and an online request and complaints management system. Nevertheless, many of the public bodies have not even identified their PIOs (even not at the central level) including Administrative Offices of the President.

In addition, many of the public bodies have denied access to information and have even mistreated the requesters. For instance, the Lower House of the Parliament has denied journalists basic information such as attendance of MPs. The Lower House has not even responded to letters from the OCAI that asked for an explanation. Similar cases have been reported from the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Mines. Recently, the Ministry of Mines provided only partial and unreliable data to the Independent Administrators of the 5th Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Reconciliation Report. The National Security Council has come up with a policy on classification of information but the document itself has been labeled classified. President Ghani’s close aides on freedom of expression have been more a hurdle than a support to the commission. Such behaviors stem from a culture of secrecy and information mismanagement that are against established international norms.

Nevertheless, there are good examples: Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) recently launched a data bank that is aimed at facilitating citizens’ access to information. Such initiatives should be rewarded by the government and should be replicated in other ministries to ensure proper management of information. The legal framework needs to be strengthened in favor of access to information including clear rules for discouraging inappropriate and over-classification of information. In addition, the Access to information Law should be amended to meet international standards that even countries like Sera Leone and Liberia have met.

Access to information is an extension of freedom of expression, a fundamental right of every citizen recognized by Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 50 of the Afghan Constitution (2004) also recognizes the right of access to information and requires all public bodies to provide information to the public in accordance with the law. It took the Afghan Government about a decade to come up with a poor law to regulate public bodies’ conduct in this regard.  It should not take the government another decade to take some basic steps to ensure citizens’ access to information.