Tunisia Assembly Adopts Freedom of Information Law

14 March 2016

The Tunisian parliament has overwhelmingly approved a freedom of information law after making a variety of amendments.

The Assembly of People’s Representatives adopted the bill by a vote of 123-0, with one abstention. “It was a difficult birth of a historical law and an important step taken by Parliament towards the consecration of the principles of the Constitution,” said the president of ARP, Mohamed Ennaceur (as translated by Google) in a directinfo article.

“With the adoption of the new Organic Law, Tunisia will be to the forefront of Arab countries to guarantee this right,” said Salwa Ghazouani, Director of Article 19 Tunisia, who stressed the need for good implementation of the new law.

Significant disagreements existed over the exemptions section and compromises were reached. One group critical of the draft, Al Bawsala, had launched a social media campaign about it. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The Tunisian law brings the number of international FOI regimes to 106.

Specifics of Changes Made

The following notes on the amendments made to the bill was provided by Nejib Mokni of Article 19.

Bodies covered. Article 3 bodies expanded. Now includes all bodies in Tunisia or external controlled by govt. Specifically now includes presidency, PM office, judiciary, parliament, local and regional, as well as subsidiary bodies under all. Also now specifically mentions NGOs being publicly funded. A regulation will set out how that will apply.
Proactive publication. Slightly expanded to cover more policies and programmes, procurement (+ relating to budget in particular). Negative is that release of statistics related info is subject to statistics law. Info requested twice now has to be published on official web site.
Requestors. Still open to all persons, natural and legal with no geographic limitations. Negative amendment to require ID number was taken out. Still no requirement to state purpose or justify it.
Responses time lengthened. These are the negative amendments. No requirement to response as soon as possible, only not exceeding 20 days now. Also, official can wait 15 days before informing requester that request insufficient, up from 10.  A small positive one is that urgent requests has to be response in 48h, not 2 working days.
ª Fees. Now general statement that information should be free. Fees limited to copy and postage.
Exceptions. This was completely rewritten several times and was the subject of great controversy. We and other groups help a press conference in the Parliament to get them to improve the very bad absolute exemptions they originally adopted.
This is apparently the final version. It includes a substantial harm test and a public interest test and a fairly limited set of exemptions:
Article 24: The relevant body shall not refuse access to information unless such access could damage the public security or the national defense or International related relations or Rights of others in protecting their private life and personal data and their intellectual property rights.
The fields listed are not considered as an absolute exceptions to the right to information and shall be subject to a prejudice test. The damage shall be substantial and encompass current and future damage. They shall be submitted to the evaluation of the general public interest before providing or refusing the access for each request and to take into account proportionality between the interests to be protected and the purpose of the request.
In case of refusal, the requester shall be informed by motivated response, the effect of the refusal shall ends with the demise of the effect of rejection reasons set out in the response to the demand of information.
Note that many of the common exemptions like economic and internal decision making are not included as justifiable exemptions. Presumably much of usual law enforcement exemptions would fall under public security but unclear on privileged docs.
Information Authority. Some slight changes to process for appointment and length of experience reduced, Member of National Council of Statistics now member, judge from Court of Accounts dropped. Parliament committee proposes top 3 candidates for each slot. Youth and women candidates given priority if equally qualified (previously age was priority). One of vice presidents dropped. There might be some additional changes in powers but final text on this section not available.
Reuse of public information.  Section dropped. Now free reuse of all public info released under law. Would have been better to rewrite to say that specifically but didn’t happen. There might be some parliamentary consideration in near future of govt copyright law so may be revisited.
Sanctions. Fines are increased from 500 dinars ($US247) to range of 500 to 5000 dinars. Former article 59 which protected officials who acted in good faith from sanctions was removed. This cuts both ways with release perhaps impacted but no criminal penalties for that. Penalties for unlawful destruction referred to Penal Code 163 now.
Implementation. Now requires training for officials.
The legislation will be published in the Official Gazette in about a month or so, in which case the officials have one year from that date for implementation. The current degree remains in effect until the new law replaces it.
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