Prying open the black box: Access to information takes its next steps in Tunisia

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One could easily think that in Tunisia the "International Right to Know" day would be a celebration. As a result of the January 2011 uprising, the country hosts one of the most progressive access to information laws in the region, its press is active, and civil society has flourished. But what I experienced last Friday was hardly a celebration – it was work.

Before the revolution, the Tunisian government and its ministries were a black box. Trying to get information from the government was challenging. A government that restricted not only criticism, but also YouTube, wasn’t keen on providing such basic information as ministry activities or development reports, let alone the kinds of things that would allow its citizens to hold it accountable – like its budget. Journalists or activists who dug too deeply faced harassment or arrest.

In fact, Tunisia’s 2011 uprising was caused, in part, by frustration over the state’s lack of transparency and accountability. Regulations were applied selectively, jobs were given out to cronies, and dissent could land you in jail. It was a government closed off and unresponsive to its citizens.

World Bank | Arne HoelIn a society starved for information, dissent, and debate, one of the first victories of the revolution was the un-censoring of the media and internet. Media outlets, citizen journalists, and civil society organizations (CSOs) grew like mushrooms – with a vow that never again would they be forced to shut up. In May 2011, just four months after the uprising, Tunisia’s interim government signed the country’s first access to information law. The new law obligated the government, for the first time, to respond to citizen demands for information and to proactively disclose information and data. With support from the World Bank, the law was based on the latest international standards for citizen access to information.

And yet, last Friday, as access to information activists gathered on Right to Know day, there was no self-congratulatory fanfare – there was work, questions, and more work. At a conference organized by Tunisian CSO "Touensa" and sponsored by the World Bank Institute and the Sustainable Development Department at the MENA Vice-presidency, the issue of the day was the nuts and bolts of implementing the new law. CSOs and media organizations dedicated to government accountability, transparency and openness were all present to push the agenda – and there were signs the government is listening. Last May, the government issued its first circular instructing ministries how to disseminate information to the public.

But the work is far from over. As the Tunisian government speaker wrapped up his presentation on what the government has done and what its next steps are, he was peppered with questions from the audience – they were urging the government to hurry – they needed information – and they were not going to take "no" for an answer. At issue is not just the legal framework, but the practical steps needed to get information from the ministry to its citizens. In ministries not accustomed to transparency, it is not just new rules that are needed, but a major cultural shift. Last Friday’s event was one opportunity for the Tunisian government to understand what information was needed and for activists to understand the constraints faced by the government.

The World Bank, for its part, is helping on both the supply and the demand side through its support for an ongoing dialogue between the Tunisian government and civil society to foster collaboration among them. On the supply side, the government needs new systems to classify, disseminate, and archive information. On the demand side, CSOs, the media, and citizens have discussed the importance of an online platform to request information – and the need to raise awareness among the citizenry about their right to information. Tunisians are also learning through a MENA regional dialogue and knowledge sharing project, also sponsored by the World Bank.

Tunisia has come a long way since 2011 - but better laws only go so far. Tunisians are now embarking on their next phase – holding their government to account and taking the lead in the development of their country.

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