Egypt needs public access to information
Taha Abdel Alim, Monday 20 Jun 2011
The freedom of disclosure and access to information must be set down in law if the country is to move forward intelligently

If we want to safeguard the January 25 revolution from the danger of diverting from its main goal, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) must quickly issue a law ensuring freedom of disclosure and access to information. Freedom of disclosure and access to information would enable the media to investigate the truth while shaping public opinion, instead of propagating hearsay and slander without documented facts.

It would also enable the youth of the revolution to find the necessary information to creatively participate in building a new system and liberate them from indulging in calls for revenge for actions of the previous regime. Freedom of disclosure and access to information enables those with limited incomes to realise that speeding up development and production is the only route to qualitatively improve their lives, rather than entertaining the illusion of redistribution of income which would not amount to much more than equal distribution of poverty.

A law on freedom of disclosure and access to information would make public and published information the rule - suppression and denial the exception. I believe that during the interim period, the government should embrace this as a central mission. There is an urgent need to publish figures on development, production, trade, income, health, education and scientific research in Egypt over the past 20 years, in order to make informed comparisons to countries that have overtaken this one-time regional pioneer.

Simply put, this information is a basic requirement not only to uncover the reasons behind economic incompetence and social injustice under the previous regime, but also to enable political parties and forces, as well as presidential candidates to plan their electoral agendas based on objective and scientific facts. Information would allow voters to choose among these programmes in terms of economic and social models, not rhetoric.

Since the January 25 revolution, investigations have revealed a shocking amount of organised corruption under the Mubarak regime, which muffled the freedom of disclosure and access to information necessary to fight corruption before it spreads.

Because of the difficulties of accessing reliable information and the absence of professional and moral standards, the media continues its sensationalist coverage by exaggerating figures about what was stolen by the corrupt. The media has not bothered to check facts or investigate the serious ramifications of corruption on decreased rates of investment, savings and income, jeopardising both Egypt’s national security and the basic human rights of Egyptians.

Without freedom of disclosure and access to information, it will be difficult for Egyptians to effectively participate in political parties, elections, policy making and legislation. Neither will they be able to partake in holding the government accountable or fighting corruption.

Official reports prior to the January 25 revolution revealed shocking failures in development and production, many of which I have addressed in previous articles. These revelations were not made as part of the government’s obligation to release such information or an invitation for the public to participate in facing the challenge, but were used as a pretext to justify transforming into a “free market” and launching the succession scenario. Then these reports ceased to be public, veiling figures of erroneous resource investment and unjust distribution of income in the years of unfettered free economy.

Sadat, too, used reports of economic achievements and failures being to justify political transformation when he overturned Nasser’s policies.

The government was correct in approving the creation of independent professional unions, and thereby removing Egypt from the blacklist of countries opposing union freedoms. Then Cairo worked on a unified law for religious institutions to enforce freedom of worship and announced its intention to issue a law criminalising discrimination in abidance with human rights and citizenship rights.

The government should be mindful that issuing a law on the freedom of disclosure and access of information also corresponds with international law.

UN General Assembly Resolution 59, adopted during its first session on 14 December 1946, stated: “The freedom of access to information is a basic human right and the measure of all freedoms.” Article 19 of the International Human Rights Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this includes the right to seek, receive and transfer information.” This principle was reconfirmed in Article 19 of the International Charter of Civic and Political Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966.

The laws of freedom of disclosure and access to information are subject to exceptions and limitations, such as withholding information which could undermine national security, public order, sovereignty and unity of the state, as well as strategic, scientific or economic interests.

It also makes sense to withhold information to prevent crime, enforce court decisions, search, arrest and monitoring operations by public agencies and to protect international relations and trade negotiations. Other suppressed information could pertain to environmental impacts, economic threats, financial, monetary and international trade policies, as well as trade secrets or private and public economic interests which if disclosed could lead to illegal competition and violation of the rights, competitive advantage or any other legitimate interests of firms. Information can also be withheld based on international law or the laws of another country or international organisation to protect covert and future sources of information the name of public safety. Also, private information should include that which if disclosed could threaten the safety, life or wellbeing of an individual, violate the right to privacy without due cause, damage an individual’s reputation, or violate the freedom, rights and interests of others.

The principles of Article 19 state a three-stage test for exemptions or limitations on freedom of disclosure and access to information. First, that exemptions are based on a legitimate goal stipulated by law; second, that the disclosure of information could pose a serious threat to this goal; third, that the harm from disclosure greatly outweighs the benefits to public interest.

Despite all these exceptions, a law on access to information must be based on the principle of maximum disclosure, which assumes that all information in public agencies is accessible. Denying access must only be to avoid harm to legitimate public interests. Countries must also abide by an essential commitment to guarantee that all citizens have access to information regarding grave violations of human rights or crimes against humanity, which includes violations committed in the past.