Last Friday, I attended a colloquium on the state of access to information in four countries of the Maghreb, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. The two-day event organised by Transparency Maroc and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on 12-13 December, brought together experts, journalists and heads of the main human rights organisations in the region. The issue of access to information is fundamental in fighting corruption, as Transparency International states on the website:
The right to demand information is fundamental to building trust among citizens and the state. It is a right that acts as an instrument to allow citizens access to fulfill other cultural, economic and social rights such as the right to education, to food, to work, to self determination.
When citizens are denied their right to know, corrupt officials can act with impunity. When the media cannot report the facts due to government control or censorship, this right is further harmed and opacity strengthened.
Interestingly, technical solutions addressing and using information that is already publicly available strategically, as rare as it might yet be in the region, have barely been mentioned. It became visible in the responses to a comment on the value of technical solutions to facilitate access to information made by Jaco Du Toit, in charge of Communications and Information for the Maghreb region at the UNESCO in Morocco. There still exists a fear that technical solutions will not facilitate, but hinder access to information by producing too much text and information, and exclude the non-literate and poor, being especially challenging when looking at countries with a high numbers of analphabetism, for example in Morocco.
However, besides giving citizen the possibility to access information from the next internet café 24/7 rather than travelling to the next municipality, the contrary would be true regarding the non-literate in the population, as technology would allow and facilitate people who can not read, to access information or undertake administrative procedures via icons and visual elements.
The web also reduces arbitrariness in administrative process, as can be seen in an example from the regional capital Fez, where all costs and requirements regarding services such as birth certificates can be reviewed via the web. The project ACK Journal by Transpareny International in Russia aims at gathering all information on administrative processes, and user experience to increase transparency and knowledge about any requirement and current law, and therefore reduce corruption.
As discussed and mentioned by various attendees, citizen can be empowered through the right to information and by giving access to information. Trust is a crucial factor in politics. Let the citizen use the tools making information easier accessible, some of them that may still need to be developed. Let them decide how they want to hold their authorities accountable. Have a look at the work of the Sunlight Foundation (also presented on this blog) to see some concrete examples.
Of course, the Tunisian example discussed during the workshop shows another critical issue: access to information is of no value, especially for the media, if there is no freedom of expression.
One the key questions is however, what to do when information is not available, and where legislation has not yet passed the necessary laws? Some ideas could follow the concept to show the lack of information and highlight where it either should be available by law and is not, or building up pressure on the type of data that is most urgently needed.