Last Sunday, 28 September, the world marked the International Right to Know Day. The day was established by access to information advocates from around the globe, and was first celebrated in 2003. The aim is to raise awareness of every individual’s right of access to government-held information, the right to know how elected officials are exercising power and how tax-payer money is spent.
Egypt has more often than not been accused by Egyptians and foreigners alike of being a place where access to information is most difficult. But there are hopes this might change in some not so far future.
Back in 2012, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology had drafted a bill for Information and Data Exchange. The bill stipulated the establishment of a Supreme Council for Data and Information (SCDI) that would enjoy full independence in carrying out its role.
The bill upholds the right of everyone to seek data or information, but that nobody can use the data or information acquired from the SCDI for a purpose other than the initial purpose for which it was sought. The SCDI should respond to requests for information within 10 working days, to be counted from the date the information request is submitted. The fees sought by SCDI for the data or information that it provides should not exceed the actual cost of providing the data. SCDI is entitled to refuse to provide certain information, according to the discretion of its members; if the disclosure of information is deemed harmful to the State’s identity, borders, unity or national security, or may incite gender or sectarian strife, it may be withheld.
On the other hand the bill suggests a prison penalty, dismissal from position, as well as a maximum EGP10,000 fine for the employee who refrains from providing the requested information.
The bill for Information and Data Exchange now awaits the election of a new parliament to see light.
According to Abdel-Rahman al-Sawi, Chairman of the CIT Legislative Committee in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the law for Information and Data Exchange is vital for economic and investment growth.
“Some authorities monopolise substantial economic and investment related databases, while refusing to provide necessary information to its seekers,” Dr Sawi told Watani. “This increases monetary risk factors for foreign investors, owing to lack of complete accurate information.”
“A law for the freedom of exchange of information would be pivotal in battling corruption,” said Ahmed Saqr, UN expert in arbitration and fighting corruption. “Battling corruption is crucial to attracting investment, local and international alike.”
The economic expert Mahmoud Hussein confirmed to Watani that the availability of information would in the long run spare investors huge losses which are very often incurred by wrong investment decisions due to inaccurate information.
He explained that sound, well studied investment decisions would have a positive effect on all economic sectors. Dr Hussein pointed out that the law for Information and Data Exchange is important for investors in the money market, especially when decisions primarily depend on available data and information. Researchers and pollsters should also benefit from this law, since the results of their work would be more accurate and realistic in light of a pool of guaranteed accurate data.
Former Finance Minister Samir Radwan agreed with Dr Sawi and Dr Hussein that the law for Information and Data Exchange would put an end to the hegemony of some authorities over information. He confirmed that the implementation of the law would enhance the efficiency of economic decisions, whether in the public or the private sectors, especially in that it will enable investors to estimate the true size of the market and therefore estimate the risks and consequences related to their investment decisions.
In parallel to the impending bill for Information and Data Exchange which awaits its fate, an obvious trend is currently being adopted by the Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Centre to serve both the investment and private sectors as well as civil. The centre has expanded its service beyond being the think tank for the State’s decision makers, and has announced it is holding seminars and interviews with businessmen to familiarise them with means of accessing available information and studies free of charge or against fees.
2 October 2014