Press Statement: The Civil Society Refuses the Right to Information Bill

The Signatories on this statement declare their disapproval of the “Right To information” draft bill, which has announced by the Ministry of Justice in a press conference on Thursday the 2nd of May. During the press conference, the Ministry’s representative has spoken about the positive sides of the bill and the process of its formulation in collaboration with the civil society and some international experts. The civil society has indeed shared a lot of suggestions during this process; in order to preserve a balance between the law’s exemptions on freedom of information and the specified access and disclosure mechanism. The bill has assured that the right to knowledge and access to information are basic rights and it’s the law’s function to protect them but the last version of the bill has contained a lot restrictions which were seen by the statement’s Signatories as detracting from the right of access to information confirmed by other articles in the same bill.

A lot of criticism was pointed to this bill including the authorizing of the information disclosure system to a public body called the national council for information whose membership is mostly formed by government officials with unequal representation of the civil society. In addition, the president of this council is appointed by the president, which makes the whole public body under the control of the executive authority and thus losses its autonomy.

The bill has ignored defining precisely the term of “National Security” which came as an exemption causing a refusal on access to information requests if these requests cause harms to it. The civil society organizations (CSOs)has recommended the importance of defining this term so that it deters any arbitration in its application or interpretation leading to the transformation of the exception to the general rule. Moreover, the CSOs has proposed a definition For “national Security” to the ministry of justice which includes all what relates to the operational capabilities of the Armed Forces but unfortunately it was ignored by the ministry and the draft came with no precise definition.

The bill also has breached one of the standards of the freedom of information when it stated explicitly that the general intelligence and military intelligence bodies are not subject to this law provisions, putting these two above accountability, which is a serious indicator to the Egyptian government’s vision to the freedom of information. The different CSOs have refused this exemption and stated that it’s acceptable to have some restriction on the access to information related to certain body; however the body itself must be subject to law regardless of its nature or specialization.

The bill has determined the period for withholding information to be twenty-five years and may be extended for a similar period under the request of one of the two intelligence bodies, which means that the overall period of withholding reaches fifty years- an expansion of the exception- as well as giving the authority to extend this period to bodies that are not subject to the law, and therefore may not be held accountable for any matter relating to the application of the provisions of the law.

Moreover, the targeted bodies are not required by law to update their data at specific dates, which is recommended by the representatives of civil society, but the law only stated that this updating should occur periodically which in return allows for the spread of financial corruption in public budgets Expenditures mechanisms and tenders.

Finally, last chapter in the bill was devoted for stating the penalties for violating its provisions which lacked the standards of necessity and proportionality that should be available in order criminalize any act on justifiable manners. One example, the punishment of disclosing the information that lies within the scope of the exemptions by imprisonment or a fine would entail imposing self-censorship on the targeted individuals by the law for fear of committing a crime. In addition, there is no article stated that protects whistleblowers, who may have to disclose some of this information to prove the seriousness of their complaints especially in crimes of corruption.

This bill is unacceptable because it dedicates and enhances practices of the executive authority in restricting information and eliminates any opportunity that allows the public to hold the authorities and public bodies accountable. It also dedicates to the absence of a legal framework of transparency, deprives the public of their basic right to monitor the work of public servants, and deprives them of active participation in identifying their own objectives and use of community resources.

Accordingly, and despite our efforts to participate in formulating an RTI draft law that matches Egypt’s aspirations after the revolution, we, the Signatories, reject the draft bill in its present form.

Egypt, 22nd may 2013

Support for information technology center (SITC)

Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Dr. Khaled Fahmy, History professor at the American University in Cairo

Dr. Najla Rizk, Professor of Economics at the American University in Cairo