Belqis Abu Osba (left), SNACC Vice Chairman, and Horia Mashhoor (right), Minister of Human Rights, speak out at a workshop on the Access to Information law. The workshop helped promote the law and generate support among Parliament, journalists and activists.

By Jeff Baron

As Yemen draws up a new system of government, it is promising a level of openness unprecedented in the Arab world.

A law passed by Yemen’s parliament April 24 would guarantee open public meetings and access to records from all levels of government. The legislation follows three years of work by civil society activists, including Counterpart International’s Responsive Governance Project (RGP) and the Studies and Economic Media Center (SEMC).

“Information is the oxygen of democracy, and without information, the democracy will vanish and die,” says Abdul Moez Dabwan, a member of Parliament’s Information Committee. He says the new law will enhance transparency. “The best atmosphere of corruption is where no information is allowed and available,” he says.

Protests that dominated public life in Yemen in 2011 led to the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012. His successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has promised a two-year process to create a more democratic constitution and government.

Fatma Uqba, RGP’s Advocacy Manager, says the Access to Information law was a priority for proponents of good government. RGP trained SEMC and other civil society organizations to develop an advocacy campaignthat gained the support of the ministers of legal affairs and human rights.

100 signatures set the stage

A major step toward passage of the bill came in January during a workshop on the campaign by RGP and SEMC. Minister of Human Rights Hooria Mashoor helped open the workshop by speaking in favor of the bill. The session drew more than 140 people, including representatives from six government ministries, members of Parliament, journalists and activists. By the end of the day, more than 100 had pledged their support for the measure.

SEMC then used that show of support as it educated other decision makers in government and civil society in meetings and phone calls.   Mustafa Nasser, the head of SEMC, also stationed himself at the door of Parliament’s sessions hall to lobby for the bill in sight of all the chamber’s members.

The advocacy campaign overcame objections by some members of Parliament who considered an open-government law a low priority in a time of crisis. Advocates said that the law would be essential to give Yemen a chance at democracy.

“One of the conditions of democracy is to have the right to access to information,” says Beliquis Abo Osba’a, head of the Supreme National Committee for Combating Corruption.

Business leaders endorsed the measure, too.

“No information means no investments, which means no economic development in Yemen,” says Fathi Abdul Wasa’a Hail, head of the Businessmen’s Club.

Now that the law is passed, civil society organizations are making plans to promote its use with a public-awareness campaign comprising documentary films, brochures, a poster, TV public-service pieces and podcasts. Some will target women, who traditionally have played only a limited role in Yemeni public life.

How the law works

The law says that the government must comply with citizens’ requests for information that it has unless the information falls into certain categories. Among them: the secrets of private businesses; copyrighted material; personal information of private citizens; diplomatic or defense secrets; and details that could jeopardize criminal investigations.

The law applies not only to the executive branch of Yemen’s central government, but to the legislative and judicial branches as well, at all levels, and to institutions, such as universities, that receive government funding.

If a request for information is rejected, the applicant can appeal the decision in court.

Uqba said corruption is considered “prevalent throughout the public institutions, affecting the country’s resources, economic stability and people’s lives.” If the new law is followed, corruption should be easier for civil society groups and the media to find and expose.

“The knowledge of Yemeni citizens on what the government is doing, especially the executive authority, will allow them to observe and participate,” says Mohd Al-Mekhelafi, Minister of Legal Affairs. This will “surely lead to enhance the trust between the government and citizens,” he says.

About RGP

RGP, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), focuses on strengthening public policy, enhancing representative government, forming a competitive political process and increasing civil society’s participation.