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Afghans’ journey to make access to information a reality

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By Sayed Niyam Shinwaray-It is proved that the right of access to information plays a vital role in a country’s stability, development, good governance and transparency. Luckily, Afghanistan’s recently taken steps on the path of Access to Information (ATI) has been promising. As an important stage of Afghanistan’s journey to arrive at favorable conditions for accessing government information, the Oversight Commission on Access to Information (OCAI) recently inaugurated its inclusive four-year strategy developed in a short span of time beginning in January this year.

Although the ATI Law was approved by the president in 2014, there has been no practical mechanism to apply the law. Therefore, very little changes in the culture and approach of the government departments pertaining to ATI law were brought about in order to execute the law and facilitate access to government information.

Despite the mentioned achievement at hand, the National Unity Government (NUG), Afghan citizens and media face another phase which is far more challenging than the law passed and strategy developed, and that is implementation of the strategy.

An important part of the newly developed strategy by OCAI with technical and financial support from Democracy International (DI) is raising awareness about this new addition to Afghan democratic system. DI Chief James Wasserstrom at the ATI strategy launch conference held recently by OCAI and DI said: “The citizens’ right to know what their government is doing is the very lifeblood of an informed citizenry, and will enable the Afghan people to make better judgments as to the effectiveness of their government.” It is true, because otherwise in the absence of information, people remain unaware and will know nothing about their government’s performance.

Afghanistan’s efforts to culturize access to information are yet to happen. President Ashraf Ghani ratified the ATI law in December 2014; however, still many journalists and relevant agencies have been voicing concerns about its implementation. Despite the journalists have accused some high ranking government officials of creating hurdles to their quest for access to information, but all in all the Ghani’s administration has been dynamic in this regard. The leadership is doing its best but the lower level authorities are reluctant to cooperate with media reporters in many cases.

Recent surveys regarding compliance of government institutions with ATI law draws a negative picture.The Kabul Press Club (KPC) in its survey in April showed that access to information in Afghanistan was far from satisfactory, stating the situation has worsened during 2017 as more than 60 percent of journalists showed dissatisfaction with the attitude of relevant government officials in terms of sharing information, compared to 50 percent last year.Later on, another survey conducted by a free media advocacy group, NAI, in May found nearly 90 percent of journalists faced problems in obtaining information.

All these issues are considerable because government officials shy away from facing journalists and extend a limited cooperation to the media. For this particular purpose, awarenesscampaigns should be carried out as most of government officials do not know about the access to information at all and they considered interviews and conferences as access to information; however, access to information practices encompasses a broader area. Journalists also face threats from government officials when they ask them for information, the threats become serious when journalists prepare investigative reports about corruption.

Although the government is willing to implement the law, the lower level officials still need to learn about the benefits of implementation of the law and the security of the media reporters should be paid heed to. Thus, war is another obstacle which creates numerous difficulties in the way of ATI law and the developed strategy’s implementation. Two years after the law on access to information was approved and the departments concerned were ordered to implement it; President Ashraf Ghani in October 2016 once again issued a new decree on speeding up the process of public’s access to information, showing Afghan government’s strong will in its stance on access to information.

In addition, the (OCAI) was formed in October 2015 based on the 16th article of ATI law and was tasked to oversee access to information law’s execution at government machinery. The commission is a big facilitation to journalists as it helps reporters gain easy access to information and in case of denial to access information, they could lodge complaints at this platform. The OCAI’s latest remarkable accomplishment is the introduction of ‘the national strategy on access to information’, which was presented during a conference on Sunday, August 13.

It’s a good omen for Afghanistan as ATI Law is productively making its progress despite barriers. Based on an assessment of the contents of this law, the ‘Global Right to Information Rating’ (GRIR) ranks Afghanistan at 71, comparable to Switzerland but better than many European and regional countries.

Among other developments, the trend of writing on access to information has taken shape in Afghanistan. In the first book written on access to information in our country, a noted Afghan Journalist Danish Karokhel, its author puts down “It’s important that people understand information, their right of access to information, mandate of the OCAI and developments that have taken place in access to information.”

In our unfortunate corruption-dominated society sharing information should be primacy as lack of access to information is like a barrier that impinges journalists’ work and also results in ignorance of people. Therefore, I recommend to the government to step up efforts in this regard to facilitate access to information as it could help media improve good governance, eradicate administrative corruption and provide an opportunity for accountability.