Free access to information helps promote accountability and the rule of law, and helps citizens monitor their government. It also strengthens the status of the media and civil society, thereby contributing to processes of reform and democratisation. Most Arab countries deny access to information; however, some recent patterns suggest a degree of progress. Collaboration between networks and non-governmental organisations in the Arab world is also helping to promote a culture of openness and demands for greater freedoms. The project, running 2013-2016, promotes access to information as a right of citizens. Undertaken in partnership with the ARI member organisation The Egyptian center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera),  the project seeks to enhance citizens’ mobilisation to demand the freedom of information as a right, focusing specifically on Egypt. The project involves three specific activities: an assessment of access in Egypt, a regional conference and report comparing legislation and civil society efforts across the Arab world, and the development of a monitoring tool.

In assessing access in Egypt, Baseera conducted an online survey of 193 political elites on the right to information in order to measure the importance they give to free access legislation. In addition, four experts were selected to conduct in-depth interviews with 31 stakeholders on the demand side, while the disclosure principles and procedures of seven ministries (health, education, interior, finance, investment, justice, and housing) were analysed and tested. These disclosure levels were then assessed in comparison with international standards and with counterpart ministries in India in order to assess the gaps in the Egyptian system.

The findings were published in the report ‘The State of Information in Egypt: Activating the Constitutional Right’ (available in Arabic here, the report will be made available in English in 2016). This in-depth report examines why the freedom of access to information is important for the construction of a modern state, studies information flows from governmental agencies through the specific study of the practices in ministries that provide services directly to citizens and non-service provision ministries, assesses how citizens use mechanisms in practice to access information from governmental agencies through a targeted elite survey of users of such information, and identifies the actions needed for the proper implementation of access to information laws in Egypt.

In November 2015, a regional conference, “Towards Information for All” was held in Cairo with researchers, journalists, and civil society representatives. The conference exposed the notion of freedom of information as a right of citizens - to be enshrined in legislation- and central to their appraisal of government. The conference discussed the link between access to information and the fight against corruption and government waste, economic growth, and political reform. The conference also presented the status of information in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia, providing specific recommendations to ameliorate existing legislation and promote greater access.

As a culmination of this project ARI, in partnership with Baseera, will publish a report on the status of access to information in the MENA region in Spring 2016.

Finally in order to support efforts to improve access to information in the MENA region, ARI developed through the project a monitoring tool in order to track government responsiveness to requests for information. The tool, utilised by country teams since 2015 in the data collection phase for the production of ARI's Arab Democracy Index report and included an indicator of the democratic transition, will also provide critical knowledge to be used in future advocacy and campaigns for access to information.

Sarah Anne Rennick, ARI Research and Operations Coordinator, coordinates this project.