Iran: The long road to transparency

A draft bill for Iran’s first Freedom of Information Law was passed in November 2009 amid increasing political tensions around corruption and the economic crisis. This move followed the June 2009 protests—the most turbulent in Iran’s history since the 1979 revolution—which disrupted the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under allegations of fraud and corruption.

The bill laid the groundwork for a full legal framework for access to information in Iran;[1] a move aimed to silence critics and threaten dissenting senior officials that challenged the administration.

Iran is not a state renowned for its transparency. The nation evidences widespread corruption and journalists and researchers seeking information on government affairs are frequently muzzled.[2] Iran’s track record for transparency and access to information is riddled with contradictions. For example, although the draft bill was passed under Ahmadinejad, his administration remained one of the most corrupt and non-transparent in Iran’s modern history. Today, his ministers are still being investigated for fraud and corruption[3].

Given Iran’s disregard for transparency and fundamental principles of free expression, the new Freedom of Information law is easy to dismiss. However it shouldn’t be. The law could become a powerful tool for the citizens of Iran ­— whether for journalists, environmental activists, or women’s rights groups. There is a huge demand for information in Iran and taking advantage of this law could be pivotal in getting achieving that goal.

The twisting legal marathon that lead to Iran’s Freedom of Information law is critical to understanding its impact. Lack of transparency led to levels of corruption in the government that both reformists and conservatives and—at times, even the Supreme Leader—routinely denounced in public. Discussion about the need for greater transparency was rarely based around citizens’ rights to information, but rather on political rivalries and Iran’s economic crisis.[4] However it did eventually trigger government action to support transparency as a means of silencing critics.[5]

In 2008, a draft law that had been developed over a 25 year period finally passed in the Parliament as a bill, but was rejected by the powerful Guardian Council.[6] The bill was blocked for several reasons but its broad scope was most controversial. It encompassed governing organs under the supervision of the Supreme Leader: meaning transparency and access to information was required of them. The bill finally made it to the Expediency Council in 2009 but contained a highly contentious footnote (in Article 10)[7], requiring the Supreme Leader’s permission for the publication of information from any organization under his supervision. This addition contradicted the philosophy behind the bill’s introduction. Despite the footnote—and the many years of effort behind the law’s realisation—it took five years for the bill to be adopted.

In November 2014, Iran’s government finally issued regulations for the implementation of the moribund law. In 2015, the Cabinet adopted the Implementing Regulation Article 8 on how information can be requested, followed by the Implementing Regulation Article 18, outlining the formation of the Freedom of Information Commission.

By May 2017, the Iranian government had started to build an infrastructure for information requests to be made. Hossein Entezami, deputy Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, announced the launch of a portal allowing citizens to make access to information requests, as set out in the implementing regulations. In the following months, numerous government agencies joined the platform to receive and respond to requests. The portal is accessible only via proxies from inside Iran which – given Iran’s prolific censorship laws, online repression and isolationist cyber policies – is hardly surprising.

The government reports that as of August 2017, 28 of the registered agencies received information requests from the public. The long and winding legal process appears to have produced promising results. But because the portal is not easily accessed, it is difficult to assess whether any responses to these requests were made public, as required by the regulations. In fact, the government’s opaque implementation policy make the assessment of transparency extremely challenging.

However, dialogue around the need for transparency has changed since President Hassan Rouhani’s election in August 2013. Rouhani has spoken out on the issue in terms of the right to access information. In November 2013, Rouhani’s government published a draft Citizens’ Rights Charter in line with promises made during his presidential campaign and to address the serious human rights concerns of the Iranian people. This charter, though not legally binding, began a conversation over the “Right of Access to Information” for the Iranian people. Although these moves were still far from enforcing international standards on access to information, they signalled an official acknowledgment of access to information as a right. This dialogue contributed to the current administration’s efforts to become less isolated from the international community and attract foreign investment, for which transparency would be key. News emerged of active encouragement from the likes of Hossein Entezami for people, including journalists, to take access to information as their “right”! Free workshops have even been offered to journalists on how to use the law.

The existence of the law itself is an encouraging step. Every Iranian citizen should be able to use the law to obtain information from public bodies about how public money is being spent, decisions which may affect their communities, and other types of information which could affect their lives. However the law contains many shortcomings which undermine its effectiveness. On international “Right To Know Day” 2017, ARTICLE 19 published the first analysis of the Publication and Free Access to Information Act and finds it to contain many problematic provisions. A few examples: it only applies to citizens; and the law requires that bodies under the control of the Supreme Leader are only subject to the requirements to proactively publish information about their structures and activities with the permission of the Supreme Leader.

Revising the law should remain a priority for Iran. But in the meantime, the government should take steps to improve its implementation. Initial actions should include: making the implementation procedures more transparent; making the annual reports of the bodies and Information Commission public; creating a new bylaw outlining the appeals mechanism; including the law’s independence from the Ministry’s other functions; establishing time frames for Commission decisions and the process for making them binding; and adopting clear laws on the reuse of information and data obtained under its provisions.

With these initial steps, Iran can move towards a law that abides by international standards and respects the rights it owes its citizens.

Read our analysis of the Publication and Free Access to Information Act here.

This article is published in colaboration with Política Exterior, through the series “Press and Democracy”. The most recent article is available here [ES].

[1] The Right of Access to Information (RTI) is the right of every person to obtain information, files, and data held by governmental bodies. This right is well established in international law as a human right relating to freedom of expression as well as an important mechanism for achieving other rights and objectives, including anti-corruption

[2] In fact, in the latest Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) Iran fell to a 131 ranking from a total of 176 countries, just lower than last year’s position of 130 out of 167 countries.

[3] Despite Ahmadinejad protesting and announcing that he and his ministers would public all of their financial details publicly to show how transparent his administration is, his administration remained and remains as one of the most corrupt and non-transparent in Iran’s modern history. Years on from his administration, his ministers are still in court being investigated for fraud and corruption.

[4] For example, when dispute erupted in 2009 when then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was accused of causing Iran’s economic crisis by the outgoing Economy Minister Davud Danesh-Ja’fari, Ahmadinejad then declared an “open war” against “economic Mafia” and the “financially corrupt” in high positions; blaming many ministries and government offices for the economic issues in Iran

[5] An example was in 2008 Ahmadinejad proposed the introduction of a parliamentary bill to investigate the wealth of senior officials in Iran

[6] The most influential body in Iran. It is currently controlled by hardliners. It consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament.

[7] The Council is an advisory body for the Leader with an ultimate adjudicating power in disputes over legislation between the parliament and the Guardian Council. The Supreme Leader appoints its members, who are prominent religious, social and political figures.