Discussion Active in Tunisia on Protecting Access Rights

9 April 2012

Efforts are under way to ensure that Tunisia’s new constitution will protect access to information.

An “Open Government and Access to Information” event was held in late March, sponsored by the Tunisian government, the World Bank and the European Commission, according to a World Bank press release. Representatives from regional governments, international experts, government officials and civil society groups attended.

The World Bank quoted Mohammed Abbou, Deputy Prime Minister for Administrative Reforms as saying, “The current government is fully committed to transparency and has decided to facilitate the effective access of public documents as it is convinced of its importance in the democratic transition process.” And at a conference on open data in early April, another official indicated that plans are under way for a national open data portal, database, to be called www.data.gov.tn.

The government has received some criticisms, according to a press report about the meeting, “Some activists defending the cause of open governance expressed disappointment in the Ministry of Administrative Reform’s lack of coordination with civil society,” said an article by Wafa Ben Hassine in TunisiaLive.

He also reported:

Presenters disagreed over what can be considered an exception to the principle of maximum disclosure: such as information whose potential harm could override potential benefits, sensitive personal data, and confidential data that may threaten national security.

Jordanian Nidal Mansour, president of the Center for the Defense of Journalists’ Liberty (CDFJ), asserted that having a central coordinating body is the key to regulating exceptions.

In addition, the article said:

Jazem Halioui, a member of the OpenGovTN group, said that “we would like to see the minister of administrative reform to involve citizens in the implementation of the new procedures that guarantee transparency – for example, in making public the administration’s budget, with all its details, as a first step.”

Halioui suggested that a next step could be the involvement of civil society and citizens in the the ministry’s working groups to help define its coordination with other levels of governance, such as municipalities and state administrations.

“We are giving the current government a chance to prove its good intentions – because whether or not it implements effective open governance, we will fight for our rights regardless,” Halioui said.

In November 2011, Tunisian activists created OpenGovTN. Here is the Facebook link.

Article 19 Report

Separately, Article 19 has issued recommendations for protecting freedom of expression and access to information in the Tunisian constitution now under development. The Constituent Assembly of Tunisia, elected in October 2011, is currently drafting a new constitution.

“The new Constitution should protect freedom of information and access to information held by or on behalf of a public body, as well as access to information held by private persons necessary to enforce a right,” according to Article 19. “The new Constitution should state that access to information should be granted unless:(a) disclosure would cause serious harm to a protected interest; and (b) this harmoutweighs the public interest in accessing the information.”

While not suggesting specific language, Article 19 describes and contrasts the constitutional provisions of a variety of countries in the 90-page report.

The report reviews past Tunisian constitutions and the current  environment, observing that “Following the popular uprising in Tunisia in December 2010 and the departure of President Ben Ali, there have been a number of positive developments in Tunisia aimed at reforming restrictive media legislation….” Article 19 lists these, including the adoption of a Decree on Access to Administrative Documents in July 2011. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report).

 “Yet these reforms are limited and there remain deep challenges to freedom of expression and the right to information – including a range of laws crafted and then abusively interpreted by courts to suppress the expression of dissent – that have not been addressed by the new reforms,” according to Article 19.

Specifically regarding FOI, the report concludes, saying the current law  “is insufficient. Constitutional protection of freedom of information would mean a higher status for the right and compel a new Tunisian government to adopt comprehensive freedom of information legislation.”

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