The Lebanese government should be held accountable to the public and no longer make decisions behind closed doors in order to stop the culture of corruption, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud said on Tuesday on the occasion of international Right to Know Day. 

 Baroud, talking at a conference at Beirut’s Monroe Hotel about the right of access to information, said corruption in the country is being allowed to continue because there is no law to ensure the government publishes data of public interest. 

 As it stands, Lebanon has no legislation allowing the public to request information from the government, which Baroud said was “contrary to all democratic laws,” as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

“Access to information is a human right, and the accountability of government is fundamental to any democracy,” he said at the conference in Downtown Beirut. 

 A draft Access to Information Act was submitted to Parliament in April with the support of the Lebanese Transparency Association and Lebanese Parliamentarians Against Corruption, but the bill is yet to be passed. 

 More than 90 countries around the world, including Bangladesh, Uganda, Israel and South Africa, have implemented some form of access to information legislation, with Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 the first. 

 Jordan was the first country in the Middle East to adopt such a law, in 2007, with many more in the region following suit in the last two years, yet Lebanon has so far failed to make government information transparent, which some say has encouraged secrecy around public affairs. 

“Withholding such information from the public is unconstitutional,” Minister of State for Administrative Reform Ibrahim Shamseddine said at Tuesday’s conference. “When things are hidden, it is because there is deception involved; by not passing the law we are saying it is OK to hide things from the public. 

 “The Doha agreement was done behind curtains, and it is not right – no state should operate like this,” he added. 

 The lack of publicly available information and official data released by public bodies means the system is almost impenetrable, making the job of media, NGOs and researchers in Lebanon a difficult one. 

 The interior minister also expressed concern that journalists and other “whistle blowers” who disclose information against government and other public bodies can still be prosecuted and not adequately protected against legal action, and he urged that the draft law be passed to stop these people being unjustly tried. 

 Baroud published a comprehensive report for the Interior Ministry immediately before the June 7 elections in the hope of encouraging other ministries to start implementing the law before its official ratification. 

 However, Shamseddine said the fact that so few parliamentarians had put their name to the campaign was disappointing, saying the excuse given that the government was not in place was not an acceptable one. 

 He also said that the draft bill should be the country’s priority: The conference “is an excellent thing – I think it is far more important than the Francophone Games that are happening at the moment. This law would change the country more than one event can,” Shamseddine said in light of the wide national attention the quadrennial games, held this year in Lebanon, has drawn. 

 Lebanon ranks 77th out of 180 countries for corruption, according to a recent survey by the Berlin-based organization Transparency International – four spots ahead of Iran and significantly higher than Colombia and India. 

 On a global integrity scale compiled by Integrity Alliance, Lebanon scored 15 out of a possible 100 for public access to information, and 0 – the lowest score of all countries – for whistle-blower protection measures. 

 The recently implemented Freedom of Information Act in the United Kingdom caused a scandal over the summer when independent bodies fought to make MPs’ expenses available under the act, which came into force in 2005. 

The case served to highlight the need for greater transparency when dealing with issues relating to public spending.

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