In the National Library - Sanayeh, Gherbal Initiative launched its reports on “Transparency in Lebanese Public Administrations” and “Lebanese Public Administrations – 2017 Spending Report”, in cooperation with the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform and in the presence of MPs Paula Yacoubian, Dima Jamali, and George Okeis and Mr. Mohamed Kanso representing MP Osama Saad. The ceremony, which coincided with the International Day of Access to Information, was also attended by representatives of a number of Lebanese public administrations, including general directors and heads of departments, representatives of local and international civil society organizations, and representatives of the embassies of Canada, the Netherlands, Oman, France, Belgium, the United States of America, Denmark, and Switzerland.
The ceremony was inaugurated by a speech delivered by the Director of Projects’ Development at Gherbal Initiative, Celine Merhej, in which she thanked the supporters represented by the European Foundation for Democracy (EED), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the United Nations Development Program Anti-Corruption and Integrity in Arab Countries (UNDP-ACIAC) and the Office of Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR).
Merhej then introduced attendees to Gherbal Initiative, which was launched in 2018 to promote transparency and fight corruption in the public and private sectors. The aim was to establish a link between citizens and public institutions, and to transform the political debate and discourse in Lebanon from a discussion based on political and sectarian affiliation, to a debate based on data, figures and facts. "
After the opening speech, the researcher and project manager at Gherbal Initiative, Hussein Mehdi, presented the new reports. Through these two reports, Gherbal nitiative sought to determine which public administrations have started or continue to implement the right to access information law, especially when it comes to financial data, and at the same time obtain information on the actual expenditure of public administrations for 2017, which is the year in which the General Budget Law was adopted after a 12-year break.
Mehdi presented the main findings of the initiative in its reports, where “we have submitted requests for information to 140 administrations of the Lebanese state asking for their closure of accounts for 2017 in terms of disbursement and collection, or what is called the annual financial statement. Not only did we submit requests and awaited responses, we followed up through telephone calls, field visits and meetings. This resulted in obtaining 33 financial statements. A number of administrations refused to provide us with requested information on the pretext of non-enforcement of the law prior to the issuance of implementing decrees, or that the financial statements and account segments are not included in accessible documents, or other illegal pretexts.
He stressed that "the methodology in communicating with the departments helped us to reach three advisory opinions issued by the Legislative and Consultative Committee of the Ministry of Justice, which confirms that the law has been in force since its publication in the official gazette without the need for special implementation texts, and that the financial statements, the accounts, and the budget segments of public administrations are documents that are accessible and there is no objection to providing information to applicants. "
"Of the 68 administrations that answered us, 33 of them provided us with the requested financial statements, three of them provided us with non-detailed financial statements, six of them informed us in writing that they do not have their own budget, and three administrations referred us in writing to the trusteeship authority or ministry, while the refused to provide us with information.”
It is important to comment on how three administrations refused to receive our request for information: the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, Directorate of Akl Sheikhdom for Druze Unitarian Community, and the Court of Audit. This refusal to receive our request happened in two stages with the Ministry and the Sheikhdom. After refusing to register our request, which was personally submitted to the administrations’ secretariat, we sent it via secure mail and the envelope was sent back to us, torn with a refusal to register again.
In addition, all religious/spiritual institutions that receive annual allocations from the Lebanese state budget have refused to respond to Gherbal's requests to the extent that a member of a spiritual body literally told Gherbal staff over the telephone: “the Sheikh tells you to forget it”.
The Lebanese University - Central Administration refused to provide information about its expenses for 2017, considering that the law is not in force and requires the adoption of implementation decrees and that the law does not allow it to assign an employee to follow up requests for information, however the irony that the Lebanese University is one of the first administrations that commissioned an employee to be responsible for receiving requests for information in response to our request in our previous report, where they did claim that the law was not yet enforced.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, particularly the General Secretariat, has submitted a consultation request from the Committee of Legislation and Consultation of the Ministry of Justice enclosed with our request to them asking them about the legality of the request. They obtained a legal review stating the legality of the request of Gherbal Initiative and suggested that the Ministry provides us with the requested information, which they didn’t.
The interaction with the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the Directorate General of Presidency of the Lebanese Republic was also remarkable, considering that they should serve as role models for the rest of the public administrations. It is regrettable that the two written replies by the two presidencies indicated that they considered the law to be in need of implementation decrees before it goes into effect, ignoring the legal advice issued by the Committee of Legislation and Consultation of the Ministry of Justice. It is a sign that there is a complete lack of political will to achieve transparency and fight corruption, contrary to allegations and almost daily statements in international forums and the media.
On the other hand, 17 public administrations have complied with the provisions of the right of access to information law and provided us with the requested information within the legal timeframe allowed by the law which is 15 days. These administrations were honored during the ceremony and received shields to thank and encourage them, and other administrations to enforce the law.
These administrations are: The Council for the South, Economic and Social Fund for Development, National Commission for Lebanese Women, Higher Disciplinary Council, the Cooperative of Government Employees, Bassel Fleihan Finance and Economy Institute, Capital Markets Authority, and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (Common Administrative Directorate), Litani River Authority, Lebanese Petroleum Administration, Directorate General of the Ministry of Industry - Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, General Directorate of Cereals and Sugar Beet, General Directorate of the Ministry of Labor, National Social Security Fund, General Directorate of Youth and Sports, Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform.
Then, a statement was made by the representative of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, Ms. Natasha Sarkis, who commended the work of the Gherbal Initiative and stressed on the importance of the cooperation between civil society and public administrations in order to implement the laws, increase transparency and promote the concept of accountability. A speech by the Chief Technical Adviser on Anti-Corruption and Integrity at the UNDP Regional Bureau for the Arab States, Mr. Arkan Siblani followed in which he said that “access to information is a lever for another sacred trinity, sustainable development (SDG 16.10). 2030), human rights (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and the fight against corruption (Article 10 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption) '' and stressed the importance of the work of the Gherbal Initiative in bringing citizens and public administrations together, and in the fact that the initiative is independent and speaks in terms of numbers and facts. His speech was followed by another delivered by Ms. Karen Badr of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who was grateful for the fact that the OECD was a partner in the issuance of this report, stressing on how Lebanon is working hard to enter the Open Government Partnership, and that OECD is working with the Lebanese government administrations to empower them and to enforce laws, especially those related to transparency.
After that, a shield of honor was handed over to
the public administrations which responded to the Initiative’s request within
the 15-day legal timeframe, and a commemorative
photograph was taken.