After the Tunisian Revolution in 2010, the government became much more amenable to the ideas of openness and transparency that were demanded by many citizens. The Presidency, the executive branch of government, adopted several decrees related to freedoms. One of them, the “access to public documents” decree, was adopted in May 2011 and represented the first step towards a right of access to information.
Establishing fundamental rights
Three years later, after much campaigning by civil society groups, the new constitution adopted on 26 January 2014 declared access to information as a fundamental right. The challenge for Tunisian civil society organisations like I WATCH, Transparency International’s Tunisian chapter, and political monitoring groups like Al Bawsala, was to ensure the declaration was translated into concrete action.
Reinforcing transparency and the right of citizens ‘to know’ were the guiding principles of these efforts. The first draft law failed to support full access to information as it included several exceptions to the application of the law, placing restrictions on citizens’ new rights.
The exceptions would have applied to international relations, the economic interests of the country and even to meeting minutes. Civil society organizations fought for an improvement of the law through public hearings with parliamentarians, at which they presented recommendations for improving the law. This was critical if Tunisians were to be able to hold their own government to account.
The parliament approved the new law in March 2016, marking a new era of transparency in government in Tunisia. The law now ensures that government institutions automatically publish certain documents, and enables civil society and citizens to request additional documents.
Access to information was a necessary stepping-stone for I WATCH investigations about corruption in the public sector. Over an eight month period in 2018, I WATCH submitted approximately 193 access to information requests, divided between requests to support integrity and accountability (120) and requests to investigate potential corruption (73).
In 2019, the number of access to information requests decreased to 149, and problems in the system started to appear. Almost half (46 per cent) of the total requests were either not answered by the administration within the deadlines or were not answered at all. This is an area of grave concern for civil society groups.
The access to information right is a powerful tool to fight corruption and conduct investigations into corruption in the public sector. It allows civil society to further investigate public reports and clarify suspicious cases. If information is power, then access to information is a way of holding power to account. As the saying about transparency goes, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
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