Jordan’s freedom of information act – any takers?

A new law is making it compulsory for Jordanian government institutions to disclose information to journalists and citizens – failure to do so means they can complain to a government body called the Information Council (IC). In the year since the law has been in place no one has complained to the council. MENASSAT investigates.
A goverment ad informs the Jordanian public of their right to information. © Oula Farawati

AMMAN, September 12, 2008 (MENASSAT) – "The right to information is everyone's right," reads a government advertisement published in Jordanian newspapers as part of campaign by the Information Council to inform the public about their right to information under the Access to Information Law.

The law encourages citizens to report to the IC if a public institution refuses to disclose information within 30 days. It is a unique law in the Arab world. But the Access to Information Law has been in force since June last year and no one – journalist or otherwise – has approached the council to complain.

Does this mean that all public institutions are complying with the law?

Even the IC's spokesperson, Ahmad Sharairi, wouldn't go that far. He believes there hasn't been enough publicity about the law and the existence of the council.

"The council is new and it took us some time to finalize all the paperwork with the ministries and government institutions. This takes time and the council meets only once a month," Sharairi told MENASSAT.


Jordanian journalists have been named second beneficiaries in the royal decree that endorsed the law. But many of them say they are unconvinced that the law will change anything.

"A law to enforce our right to information seems out of place. It should be a natural function for the government, and if the government needs a law to force itself to give up information – to be transparent and cooperative in other words – then I think all this must be pointless," Hatem Abbadi, a reporter at the Amman-based newspaper Al Rai, said.

He believes that enacting the law and setting up the Information Council was actually working against the right to obtain information.

"It will just be a government tool to make it easier not to give information instantly to those asking for it," he added.

Lack of information topped the list of reporters' concerns in a survey carried out by the state-run Higher Media Council this year. The report, which showed by its own scale of measurement that the level of press freedom in Jordan stood at 52.3 percent in 2007, admitted that "a lack of access to information was a major obstacle facing journalists while doing their job."

No less than 424 of the 580 journalists polled admitted to "facing difficulties in obtaining information while in other cases they were completely denied access to information," the report said.

Red tape

Nihad al Jariri, a feature writer at Al Sijill weekly, said it was always difficult in Jordan to obtain information.

"This is because the kind of information that we seek as journalists is rarely documented or mentioned on the Internet for example, so we always have to resort to the source, and usually these sources are from the government. We always have to go through a lot of red tape to get anything."

Currently, the law states that information can be withheld where issues of national security, personal freedom and public health are concerned – areas that critics of the law say could be interpreted to include nearly all information requests. 

The law states that a government body should reply to a citizen/journalist request within 30 days or else be taken to court, something heavily criticized by journalists.

"30 days is a long time for a journalist, especially those working for a daily or a weekly. It would be suitable for a reporter working on an investigative piece for months, a luxury we don't enjoy," said Jariri.

Al Rai reporter Abbadi agreed, saying that obtaining information has always depended on the mood of the employee, or official, or has been based on a personal recommendation.

"They will just use the 30-day period to come up with excuses not to give us information," Abbadi added.

But IC spokesman Sharairi refuted any implication that the law was detrimental to Jordan’s reporters because "they are citizens too."

Moreover,  Sharari said reporters benefit from another law as well.

"The Press and Publication Law actually states that journalists should get information within 48 hours," he said.

Most importantly, Sharairi said the 30-day notice only applies if the information required needs a lot of time in preparation and collection.

"Otherwise, they have to give the info immediately," he said.

Media analyst and trainer Yahia Shuqair agreed.

"This law benefits journalists who want to receive information for an investigative piece that has a far-off deadline, or a masters student not dealing with strict deadlines, for example."

"At least we now have a body to resort to and complain to if we haven't received what we are requesting. In the past, we had nowhere to go."

But a member of the council of the Jordan's Press Association (JPA), Majid Tobeh, believes that the law falls short.

"If the law is not associated with a genuine government willingness to cooperate, it will fail to achieve anything," he told MENASSAT.

"We don't need ink on paper. We need the government to be cooperative."