Legal experts review proposals for a Yemeni freedom of information act [Archives:2008/1211/Front Page]

November 27 2008

By: Kawkab al-Thaibani
For the Yemen Times

SANA'A, Nov. 26 ) Two draft laws for a Yemeni freedom of information act were presented to participants at a two-day workshop held last Saturday by the international London-based organization Article 19 and the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms known as HOOD.

“Most Yemenis know that property means their cars, houses and bags, but they don't know that information can fall under the same category,” said Daniel Simon, legal counsel for Greenpeace as way of introduction to the event.

“The main purpose is to get a draft law adopted and compiled to the international standards of human rights,” added Dr. Sejal Parmer, senior legal officer in Article 19.

The workshop also aimed at raising awareness in regard to the concept of a freedom of information act, such as the one that exists in the U.S.

“A few years ago, high-level officials hadn't even heard about this law; now drafts are being presented to the parliament and many have demanded the right of information,” said Simons, however adding that it would take several years before such a law be implemented.

Draft law by Parliament

During the workshop, parliamentarian Ali Ashal presented a draft law on the freedom of access to information prepared by the Yemeni Parliamentarians Against Corruption organization to which visiting international experts provided legal criticism.

The draft law stipulates that any Yemeni citizen has the right to ask for any public information and should receive the answer within 15 days. If denied the information, the citizen should be able to appeal to a commission.

It specifies that no official employee should be punished for disclosing governmental information to a citizen who requested it, but that officials who refuse to provide requested information should be sentenced to three months in jail or made to pay a fine of YR 150,000.

The draft law defines the areas in which information should not be disclosed. These includes information that could potentially endanger the country's security such as military intelligence, defense alliances in foreign policy, and sensitive information exchanged between Yemen and foreign countries on criminal investigations.

Despite participants generally approving the law proposal, both Yemeni and international legal experts indicated that the draft contained several flaws.

Parmer explained that the position of legislative and judicial bodies, public corporations or private companies in public service were not suitably outlined by the draft, and said that exceptions to information disclosed by these bodies should be more specific. She further objected to the president appointing the Public Information Commissariat, and maintained that the parliament should appoint its members.

“The law contains good articles, but there are many flaws,” said lawyer Khaled Al-Anesi, executive director of HOOD.

He objected to the use of the word “citizen” throughout the draft, pointing out that the person requesting information wouldn't necessarily be Yemeni, and stressed that its15-day deadline for providing information would be too late in some cases, in particular for the members of the press and lawyers.

“The condition to make the request written is one of the possible barriers towards the smoothness of enforcing this law,” he added.

Draft law by National Information Center raises questions

Although another freedom of information law has been drafted by the government-affiliated National Information Center (NIC), director general of information service at the center Sadiq Al-Hemyari refused to disclose a copy of it at the workshop, instead presenting a short summary of the draft to participants.

Angry that they were not granted access to the draft, the latter questioned the good intentions of those in government who had drafted it.

When asked about records to be withheld from the public according to the law proposal, Al-Hemyari said that information that could endanger national security or the national economy would not be disclosed.

“It is very obvious that some bodies tried to hide information and to cause more barriers to disclose information,” said Asad Omar, from the Yemeni Observatory for Human Rights.

Al-Hemyari responded to the criticism. “Some comments are irrelevant and do not comment on the draft law,” he said.

Parmer and the other legal experts refrained from comment since they had not seen a copy of the draft law. “The description [of the NIC law] was vague,” said Palmer, stressing that such a law should be drafted according to international standards.

“It is a big irony that a law of freedom to access to information be disclosed in secret,” added Simons.

Both Parmer and Simons think that despite the first draft's flaws, it holds more promise than the NIC proposition.

Freedom of access to information to combat corruption

“Information can help society in combating corruption”, said Izzaddeen Al-Asbahi, the President of the Human Rights Information Training Center, “Sometimes the right timing of disclosure can help not only to hold corrupt individuals legally accountable, but can also form public opinion to exert stronger pressure [to resolve the issue].”

“The information blackout should end,” recommended the participants at the end of the workshop, calling upon the government to release information immediately without a law governing the whole process.

“I believe that the Yemeni democracy will benefit from the law of the freedom of Information Access,” said Simons.