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Civic Space as a Key Prerequisite of Open Government Reforms in the MENA Region

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Nikhil DuttaandTinatin Ninua|

This blog is part of IRM Week: A Year in Review. Throughout the week, the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) will share findings and analysis from recent reports through a series of events, report launches blogs, and fact sheets. Learn more here.

Since joining the Open Government Partnership, Jordan (2011), Morocco (2018) and Tunisia (2014) – the three OGP country members in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – have made over 129 commitments. These have included strong commitments on improving access to public information and open data, which can be effective transparency tools to hold the government to account. 

When it comes to implementing commitments, however, both Jordan and Tunisia fall behind other OGP members, and the results of Morocco’s first OGP action plan have yet to be assessed by the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM). That said, there has been small albeit promising progress made. 

Jordan has used its OGP action plans to address challenges in implementing its 2007 Access to Information Law, which was the first in the region. While the law is problematic due to wide exceptions for release of public information, it underwent a review recently (which has not yet resulted in amendments). In its most recent action plan, Jordan has focused on creating the administrative procedures and monitoring tools necessary to implement the existing provisions of the law. 

Tunisia’s commitment to modernize the regulatory framework on freedom of information led to the creation of the Access to Information Authority, which provides grievance mechanisms in case a request for information is denied. 

The ultimate impact of commitments to fight corruption and improve delivery of public services will hinge on citizens’ ability to hold the government to account on these important promises. For example, disclosure of information will not clean up government procurement in Tunisia unless civil society is empowered to detect violations and speak up about corruption risks in contracts. Similarly, for freedom of information rules in Jordan to contribute to uncovering misuse of public funds, a pluralistic and independent media is essential. 

Civic space underpins effective implementation of all these open governments reforms. But of the three OGP members in the region, only Jordan has made notable commitments in this area. In its latest action plan, Jordan has pledged to improve the media and civil society operating environment and promote dialogue with civil society. These issues need to be addressed both inside and outside of the OGP framework. Since the next round of action plans will be implemented in an environment radically changed by COVID-19, they should also address recent challenges arising from the epidemic, as well as more fundamental problems for media freedoms and civic space.

Priority areas for reform across these three countries include: 

  • In Jordan, civil society continues to face a variety of significant restrictions, including burdensome registration and regulatory requirements for associations, interference with those exercising rights to expression and peaceful protest, and restrictions on online expression and access to websites. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Jordan has mobilized the Defense Act of 1992 to curb gatherings and movement within the country, limit the ability of health officials to speak with the press, and ban the sale of newspapers, all without significant consultation with civil society. Jordan could commit to addressing these restrictions in its upcoming action plan. Particularly feasible and impactful commitments could focus on: (1) liberalizing access to foreign funding by civil society organizations (CSOs) and simplifying the approval process required to access such funding; and (2) institutionalizing public participation in the development of policies and responses to public health crises.
  • In Morocco, notwithstanding progressive provisions in the 2011 Constitution concerning civil society and human rights, CSOs and activists continue to face ongoing difficulties with CSO registration, state interference in CSO operations, and limitations on fundraising. In its next action plan, Morocco could: (1) amend the decree on associations to facilitate registration and limit government interference with CSO operations; (2) revise a draft law on fundraising to simplify licensing, appropriately tailor oversight requirements, and reduce limitations and penalties on the use of the funds; (3) enact an actionable legal framework mandating and supporting public consultations on government policies; and (4) promote the availability of preferential tax treatment for CSOs.
  • Though Tunisia has seen a significant flourishing of the freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly since the 2011 Revolution, civic space continues to face substantial restrictions. CSOs are still subjected to complex registration requirements and are often unable to access tax exemptions or banking services. Protests during the COVID-19 pandemic have been dispersed using excessive force, and social media users and influencers have been arrested. Tunisia should address these restrictions on civic space in its upcoming action plan, by: (1) revising restrictive provisions limiting assemblies on public order grounds; (2) imposing appropriate limits and accountability mechanisms regarding the use of force in policing protests; and (3) liberalizing legal and regulatory provisions criminalizing online expression.

Through the OGP co-creation process, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia can build on recent progress by working with civil society partners to lift key civic space restrictions. With an enabling environment for civil society, these OGP members can enable public participation and promote the sustainable achievement of open government reforms. 

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