The World Bank celebrates UN International Right to Know day in recognition of the right of every citizen to access public information to hold governments accountable.
Shanta Deverajan, the Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)region, came to Tunisia earlier this month to discuss ‘low level equilibria’, the economic theory that countries can settle for economic systems or policies that end up limiting their economic development. During his visit, he was invited to the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) for an exchange not just with lawmakers, but with the whole country, thanks to Tunisia’s own champions for the right to know.
For years, Deverajan has argued that one of the most nefarious ways countries, especially dictatorial ones, trap populations in low level equilibria is by restricting information. In this regard, Ben Ali’s regime was notorious. From the regime’s repression of the press to the manipulation of statistics, Tunisians were kept largely in the dark as to what was happening in their country. While the regime’s tactics were widely known or suspected, denying citizens information, analysis or statistics prevented activists from gathering and sharing knowledge, and more importantly, organizing for their rights.
The 2011 uprising provided exactly the kind of opportunity Tunisians needed to disrupt the system – to change the equilibrium. One of the first tangible freedoms Tunisians experienced on January 14 was the opening of the internet, which had been censored up until the hours before Ben Ali’s departure. Just months later, the interim government passed decree laws guaranteeing the right to association (a fundamental right on its own, but also key for information sharing by civil society), as well as access to information.
As a result, dozens of organizations mobilized to advocate for greater transparency at all levels of government. Albawsala and Nawaat are two such organizations. Albawsala is a civil society organization dedicated to transparency in the Constituent Assembly and perhaps best known for suing the Assembly for access to official documents. Nawaat, which had been a long time dissident blog banned under Ben Ali, dedicates itself to investigative and hard-hitting reporting, with organizations like the World Bank often in their crosshairs.
For its part, the World Bank has provided technical assistance and support for Access to Information reform in Tunisia, but we have rarely, if ever, been the object of it.
Enter Shanta to the Finance Committee at the NCA.
As I took my seat on the sidelines, I found myself across from the Albawsala team and next to a reporter from Nawaat. For the next two hours, I followed Shanta’s testimony - from my smartphone - as it was live tweeted, uncensored, to anyone who was following.
I showed Shanta the tweets afterwards. Having debated a range of issues related to economic development, the tweets were going to make waves. And that's a good thing. While politics has, perhaps justifiably, taken the spotlight in Tunisia in recent weeks, major economic issues are often left on the backburner or not discussed at all.
Efforts by organizations such as Nawaat and Albawsala – among many others - are critical for citizens to stay informed about public policy debates. Yet despite these efforts, major obstacles remain, not just to ensure that Tunisia’s press is strengthened and protected, but also to inform citizens about their right to information. The harsh light of day that civil society groups, journalists and ordinary citizens are shedding on the country’s most important debates are essential for Tunisia’s transformation.
On issues of public policy and programs that affect citizens’ lives - whatever the outcome, and whatever the viewpoint – Tunisians have a right to know.
Follow Shanta on Twitter @Shanta_WB
Strengthening Tunisia’s Access to Information Laws
Decree law #41, which was adopted in 2011 was revolutionary at the time, guaranteeing a citizen’s right to petition the government for information and for disclosure by the administration. The law was passed quickly after the revolution, but it has shown its limitations. The lack of an independent body has made appeals for information difficult and adoption by the administration has been slow.
The Tunisian government, recognizing these limitations, has drafted a new access to information law, which would supersede the current law, has been placed online for public consultation and is ready for cabinet approval. Importantly, the draft calls for an independent information commission which would greatly strengthen the right to know in Tunisia. It is expected to be debated in the Assembly later this year.