Law on the Right to Access of Information: Part II

23 November 2010

More than three years after ratifying it, only 5% of journalists used the Law on the Right to Access of Information.

The government blames journalists for refraining from making use of the Law, and experts say “the Law was not enacted for journalists.”

A public opinion poll carried out by Al-Arab Al-Yawm revealed that 95% of journalists did not make use of the Law on the Right to Access of Information for their work. The poll covered 130 journalists from various information outlets. The preparation of its questions and the selection of the sample were overseen by the former Director of the Surveys Unit at the Center for Strategic Studies, Dr. Mohammad Al-Masri. It showed that about 49% (almost half those polled) do not use the Law because they believe there are other ways that are more effective to acquire the information. 21% (about one fifth of those polled) did not use it because of the “institutions’ haggling and procrastination in responding to the requests of the information potential user.” Three tenths of the sample justified not using the Law by “the indolence and sluggishness in its procedures and items.”

Reluctance of journalists, who are the parties that deal most with information, to use the Law was clear from the first year of its ratification. Figures from a study carried out by The New Jordan Center for Studies in 2009 show that 42% of journalists do not know what the Law on the Right to Access of Information is all about.

Reluctance of the government to deal with the Law, and the lack of a true desire on its behalf to facilitate the flow of information to the public are considered the main reasons behind the journalists’ reluctance to use the Law, as was found in the first part of this investigation. Today, Al-Arab Al-Yawm reveals other reasons that led to the compete paralysis in activating this Law, although three years have passed since its ratification in a country that takes pride in being the first to have ratified the Law in the Arab World.

The Government Throws the Ball into the Journalists’ Court

The government’s failure to activate the Law on the Right to Access of Information did not prevent it from blaming journalists for this. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the statement made by the former Prime Minister, Nader Al-Dahabi in the first few days of last October, when he said: “Unfortunately, until this day, not a single citizen or journalist applied through legal channels to obtain information.”

The Prime Minister was oblivious at the time of the fact that at least two journalists applied at the time to obtain information a few months before he made his statement. Rana Al-Sabbagh, a writer and a journalist had applied to the Information Commissioner requesting information six months before Al-Dahabi’s statement, specifically at the beginning of April last year. She requested to see a copy of the contract between the government and the Jordan Media Institute for renting the Institute’s building against a nominal amount of money,” according to Ms. Sabbagh, who is yet to receive and answer.

The writer of this investigation report had applied for obtaining information a full year before the Prime Minister’s statement, from the Chief Justice’s office, regarding the status of Shari’a courts. She received an answer two weeks later.

Fahd Al-Fanek, chairman of the Board of Directors of Al-Rai daily newspaper, which is close to official parties, agrees in an article published last July with the former Prime Minister. The man believes that “journalists in Jordan are complaining because they are lazy. Suffice it to say that until now, not a single journalist applied to obtain information in accordance with the Law and the procedures therein.”

In fact, there in no government mechanism to monitor the number of applicants for obtaining information, whether among journalists or others, according to the Information Commissioner, Ma’amoun Al-Talhouni. The Information Council only records complaints filed by applicants for information after the institution turns down their request to provide information. These have reached six over the past three years. However, Al-Talhouni recounts that the Law “has not been seriously tested by the journalists, since they are the parties that deal most with information (…). How then are they demanding that we improve something they have not tested?

The Law, however, did not enjoy enough promotion among people. The government held four workshops only to promote awareness of the Law; three of which were in 2008 and one in 2001. Only 100 people participated, distributed over journalists, ministries’ staff and jurists. The promotion also included a three-month media campaign in the form of paid messages in the local, official and private media.

A source close to the Information Council asserted that the government “did not allocate a special budget for promoting the Law, but deducted it from the Ministry of Culture’s budget, and that the amount did not exceed JD50,000. One page of a government message in the large daily newspapers costs over JD2,800.

The Law is Inadequate for Journalists

Mohammad Al-Khatib, the former journalist at the Amman Net Radio to repeat his experience with the Law on the Right to Access of Information after he spent four months trying to obtain a piece of information from the Central Bank by resorting to the Law. But Al-Khatib came out with nothing, and the case was closed with the Central Bank’s refusal to respond to him.

These time periods to obtain information stipulated in Articles 9 – 17 “are illogical, and no journalist, whose work requires speed in reporting news can deal with them,” according to Maha Al-Khasawneh, a professor of Information at Yarmouk University.

According to these Articles, the institution is under the obligation to respond to the person requesting the information within 30 days. If he chose to appeal the institution’s decision, however, he shall have to wait for about two months if he appealed to the Higher Court of Justice, and one month if he submitted his complaint to the Information Council, which issues non-binding decisions for the government.

Journalists are Responsible for the Law’s Failure

The Law on the Right to Access of Information did not come as a result of the persistence of information or judicial institutions that felt the pressing need for a law that protects its right to a large supply of information, as was found in the investigation.

Reminiscing the birth of the law idea, the former director of the now dissolved Higher Council for Information, Ibrahim Izziddin reveals “a desire that was, at the time, generated within the decision-making annals in Jordan, to enact an information law that polishes the country’s image in the field of freedom of expression,” so that the law is a government creation, with a timid blessing from experts whose number did not exceed the fingers of one hand.

Tareq Al-Momani, the former president of the Association of Journalists asserted that he was present when the Law was prepared, as a representative of the journalists, and that those preparing its text consulted over eighty laws from different countries around the world. He did not, however, deny the dire need for “amending some of the Law’s provisions to make it more adequate for journalists.”

Despite this confession of the need to amend the Law, the Association of Journalists did not present a list of demands to the government, recommending this despite the fact that three years have elapsed since the Law was ratified. One can remember the list of demands presented by the women coalition in Jordan, through which it succeeded in amending about five controversial articles in the Personal Status Law.

The lukewarm attitude of the Association in this context finds justification with the Association president, Hikmat Al-Momani, “who was busy preparing drafts for the Journalists’ Association Law and the Publications Law, noting that the work on amending the Law on the Right to Access of Information will commence soon.”

This situation reflected on the journalists themselves, because they were either not aware of the need to activate the Law or were not interested in doing so, as is evident from the initial distribution results of the survey carried out by the investigative report writer. It was used by 30% only of a random sample, which included 130 journalists among whom were chief editors.

The surprise came when the report writer attempted to document each case responding that it used the Law, separately. It was evident that all those surveyed did not use the Law properly, with the exception of six of them. The reason lies in misunderstanding, and because those surveyed did not distinguish between applying to an institution in accordance with the procedures outlined in the Law and submitting an official letter to the institution, or requesting the information by phone.

All media institutions, as the investigation revealed, did not apply to use the Law on the Right to Access of Information in its institutional capacity as a pressure tool on the government and as a means to test the Law. Journalistic attempts emanated from individual desires on behalf of some journalists.

Other Partners in Responsibility

Journalists are not the only people who are ignorant of the Law. The House of Representatives was also “not sufficiently aware and knowledgeable of the media laws and regulations when its members discussed it. This is what contributed to its issue by the Parliament in its present, unacceptable form, “according to Mohammad Qtaishat, a lawyer specialized in publishing issues.

The resumes of the members of the freedoms and judicial committees, responsible for reviewing the Law before it was presented to the full house reveal the lack of experience in the field of media legislation and freedom of information, as Al-Arab Al-Yawm found out. The expertise of the two committees’ members is distributed between work in the academic field and bureaucratic government positions. The experiences of even the lawyers among them were restricted to various commercial laws.

The reluctance of journalists to employ the Law on the Right to Access of Information, added to it the fragility of the Law and its non-binding nature, as the investigation showed, makes the journalistic work, with its news reporting and analytical aspect, more of a jigsaw puzzle, as Mohammad Abu-Rumman, the writer and political analyst describes it. It is a game that does not rest on a solid ground of certainty, and remains hostage to the journalist’s conjectures, as he stands at the door of the source, hoping that the source would extend the kindness of providing something worth writing about.


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