Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Backsliding on Access to Information

The cornerstone of good governance is open information so that citizens can hold their government to account.
Elections are important, but they are not the definition of democracy. Parliaments are essential and so is an independent judiciary. Yet to me, the real meaning of democracy is accountability and responsibility, and despite all the difficulties, Iraq must continue down that path.

The main problem with Saddam Hussein was that he was responsible to no one. That single factor led to all the tragedies which ensued, and to the destruction of our country.

Now we must build a culture of accountability, and the starting point for that is information. The only way that government can be accountable to the people is when they know what it is up to.

In 2003, after the fall of Saddam, the doors were opened wide open and reliable information became accessible. People could find out about orders issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority. The 2004 budget was published, and it was possible to find out how much each ministry was going to be allocated. This was a level of information that the Iraqi people had never experienced before.

Now, despite elections and referendums, Iraq has actually taken a step backwards from the transparency it enjoyed then.

As government and bureaucracy have solidified, we have reverted to old ways and the old system, and there is no longer any real information.

The explanation for this backsliding is simple: governments everywhere have a tendency to close up unless they are under pressure to disclose and cooperate. Iraq is not unusual in this, except that we are move more quickly in this direction because of our history of autocracy.

We are rushing back towards secrecy, and as a member of the public I can no longer go and find things out. And what I do not know, I cannot challenge. I cannot hold the government responsible.

This is why the media and the broader civil society are so fundamental. As a member of the public, the press is my spokesperson; it is my voice. Without a strong civil society operating through robust institutions, it is inevitable that any government will become authoritarian.

For the media to become an effective pillar of democracy, for it to serve as a true fourth estate that challenges, requires four main things.

First and foremost, of course, is the courage of media professionals. The death of so many journalists over the past three years has been a tragedy, but they are also heroes. They are dealing in dangerous matters by holding up the light of accountability, and in these days such courage is essential.

Second, the constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but this has yet to be backed up by a law passed by parliament. This is a priority, and it is essential that the drafting of such a law be undertaken with substantial involvement of the media and media law experts.

Third, the mechanisms that regulate the media must be independent of government. Neither government nor parliament must supervise and regulate the media. Whatever mechanisms are required must be vested in an authority designed in such a way that it is structurally and practically independent, and that it remains independent.

Fourth and finally, Iraq must adopt a freedom of information act. There must be a legal framework to give the public, and their representatives in civil society and the media, the right to know what government is doing and to review documents generated by the whole of the administration – government, parliament and the judiciary. Jordan is working on plans to do the same, so Iraq would not be unique in the Arab world if it introduced such an act.

There will inevitably be a difference between the mere existence of an act and its actual implementation. Government may also create many restrictions so that rights to access information are gravely weakened. But the first thing is to establish the principle so you can then argue over the exceptions. Until then, you have nothing.

The next priority is to ensure that information itself is processed in a more professional manner. Before a citizen can get information from the government, the executive has to assemble the facts it is going to give out.

At present this is not happening. The Iraqi government is not maintaining data in an organised way and it is not accumulating knowledge.

We have had new ministries for three years now, but they remain ignorant of what is happening in the country. Ask the ministry of industry how many companies were set up or how much was invested over the past year, and they won’t know. Ministry websites are a disaster: not only do they contain rubbish, but it is rubbish that has not been updated for a year.

When politicians are asked questions by the media, they perceive it as offensive or at least intrusive, rather than as a normal and positive part of the process of accountability.

An American official recently joked to me that after two years in Iraq, he longed for bureaucracy. Just imagine. What he meant was that there is no such thing in Iraq as a civil service or procedures.

Systems for gathering data need to be put in place. As the interface with the public, spokespersons for all levels of government need to be appointed, and they must be made to understand that their job is in fact to provide rather than hide information. That would be a real breakthrough.

Resolving the relationship between central government and the regions is also important, not only at the level of power and politics, but also in terms of accountability and information.

If the central Iraq authorities are to take charge of the country, they must administer the regions effectively, and that means responsibility and transparency at a local level, too.

This will be a special challenge. No one in government willingly gives out information, and when it comes to smaller institutions of governance, where there is less public pressure and personal relationships are stronger, there may be even less instinct to disclose information.

But regional governments will themselves be seeking information. If central government shares information with the regional administrations, they may join in withholding information from the public – in a kind of conspiracy of silence.

If, however, the central authorities withhold information from provincial governments, the latter may become allies of the public in pressing for freedom of information. It is a strange, Iraqi paradox.

There so much cynicism and the security situation is so bad that this may seem an odd time to be speaking about accountability or even democracy.

But we must have hope, and I do. In fact, speaking about democracy is now more important than ever.

Even amid the insurgency and terrorism, people need to feel that the government is not at war with them. They need to have a sense that government is about more than just power, but is an institution that is actually trying to serve them.

It is far better to win people over than to alienate them, and the best way to build loyalty and allegiance is when people feel the government is answerable to them.

Of course, some will cite the usual excuses - we are at war. Saddam did this all the time. The whole of the Arab world does this. We can’t have democracy because we are in a state of war; we cannot have elections; we cannot have freedom of information and the press.

But we have been at war for decades, and it has been long enough.

Accountability will not come after our problems have been solved. Instead, it is one of the preconditions that will set us on the road to democracy and ultimately peace.

Rend Rahim is executive director of the Iraq Foundation.

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).