Improving Accountability Through Access to Information
Kabul, April 2015 — While doing a story on maternal health in Afghanistan, journalist Mary Nabardaeen wanted to know how many women had died in childbirth at a certain hospital. Officials refused to reveal the number, saying that doing so was prohibited by the minister of public health. It was a response that the head of the Bakhter News Agency had become familiar with in her twenty years as a journalist. It was just another example of the challenges she has faced in attempting to get information from the government.
“In the past, it was very difficult to get information from government officials because they feared the media would publicize their corruption,” said Nabardaeen.
However the Access to Information Law is poised to change that. Signed into law by the president in December 2014, it ensures the country’s citizens the right to access information from government institutions, increasing their transparency and accountability to ordinary people.Although Article 50 of the Afghan Constitution guarantees citizens the right to access information from state departments and Article 34 provides for freedom of expression, Afghanistan previously did not have a law on access to information.
“This [law] shows that the government of Afghanistan has a strong will and commitment to protecting freedom of speech, which is a fundamental principle of democracy,” said Acting Minister of Justice Said H.E. Mr. Yusuf Halem.
The law follows the internationally accepted principle of maximum disclosure of information. That is, all information held by the government should be presumed to be public with minimal exceptions. In Afghanistan’s new law, limitations on access to information are restricted to situations where disclosure poses legitimate harm to public or private interests. This include cases where national security is concerned, where a citizen’s rights may be violated, where the release of information would obstruct the detection or investigation of a crime, or where the life, property, honor, or prestige of a person would be endangered.
It is hoped that the new rules surrounding access to information will help increase the public’s trust in government. In a country that was ranked 172 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, the potential benefits of the law are clear.
“Such a law increases accountability in government institutions. It helps us decrease the levels of corruption because corruption breeds in an environment where secrecy prevails,” said Acting Minister of Information and Culture H.E. Mr. Musadiq Khalili.
Mr. Khalili was speaking at a workshop sponsored by UNDP’s Justice and Human Rights in Afghanistan (JHRA) project which brought together 74 representatives of government, civil society and media to discuss how to operationalize the new law.
“Now that this law has been passed, it is important to see that it is implemented so that media, civil society and ordinary Afghans can start seeing the benefits of more open and democratic government,” said Luca Bruccheri, knowledge management and public participation specialist with JHRA.
JHRA will continue supporting discussions with government and civil society to assist in the operationalisation of the law. Participants at the workshop agreed that the next step towards the enforcement of the law should be the establishment of the oversight committee called for by the law. This committee is to be made up of representatives from government and civil society and will handle cases of alleged violations. Under the new law, officials who violate the right to access to information are subject to disciplinary action, which can include salary deductions.
For Ms. Nabardaeen, the journalist from the Bakhter News Agency, the law does more than just make it easier for her to conduct investigative journalism. It is essential to the health of her country.
“For this law to have been passed is as necessary as water for a human being,” she said. “Now we can go to the [government] offices and, based on this law, say – ‘Give us information as Afghan citizens.’”
That is something she has not had not been able to say in the past two decades. Now though, she, and her fellow Afghan citizens, have new power to demand accountability from their government. For her, it comes not a moment too soon.