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Power to the People? The Right to Information Law in Morocco

Morocco’s recently enacted Right to Information Law is a potentially powerful tool in the hands of its citizens, but their ability to use it is still largely dependent on the government’s commitment to transparency and political will to enforce it.

With the ratification of the Right to Information Law (31.13) in February 2018, Morocco has officially joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP).1 This is a major step for the monarchy as it vows to commit to the four key principles of the OGP: public access to information, asset declarations by public officials, fiscal transparency, and citizen participation. On March 12, 2020, Law 31.13 came into force two years after its promulgation. According to the new law—and pursuant to Article 27 of the 2011 constitution—citizens have the right to request information held by the public administration, elected institutions, and public service provision organizations. Whereas the Right to Information Law promises to promote transparency and responsiveness as well as to restore public trust in state institutions, it is still unclear as to how it will benefit disadvantaged groups in marginalized regions and improve local governance. Law 31.13 has the potential to improve the quality of public services and empower citizens, but there are also major obstacles and gaps that require immediate attention—including the lack of political commitment to transparency, the prevailing institutional culture of retaining information, and, most importantly, the increasing closure of the civic space and crackdown on opposing voices.

Discussions on a Right to Information Law were initiated as early as 2007, following Morocco’s ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption (Resolution 58/4). However, it was not until the Arab uprisings and the February 20th movement when government officials and civil society actors embarked on an initiative to promote accountable, responsive, and inclusive governance.2 As a result, Article 27 was drafted and included in the 2011 amended constitution, and, therefore, access to information became a fundamental right to all citizens and legal residents of Morocco. A specialized commission composed of members of ministerial departments, government agencies, private sector companies, and civil society organizations was later established to work out the details of the law. Law 31.13 was the product of these collective efforts. It was ratified in February 2018 after years of debate and legislative battles. The law was originally scheduled to come into effect a year after its publication in the official gazette in March 2019. However, Law 31.13 was only officially enacted in March 2020, following a one-year delay due to logistical hiccups and implementation-related issues.

In a nutshell, Law 31.13 grants citizens the right to access information retained by government entities. Individuals can submit a free application to the relevant institution and request information on items such as laws, data, and reports. However, there are exceptions that apply to the type of information requested, such as those relating to homeland security and citizens’ private data. The law, under Article 29, also outlines penalties for citizens’ misuse of the requested information. Government agencies must respond to requests within twenty working days of their receipt. In some urgent cases (e.g. protection of lives or public safety), information must be provided within three days. Information officers’ failure to respond to requests is penalized under Article 19 of the law.3 Consequently, the implementation of law 31.13 relies on two main pillars: the appointment of well-trained civil servants who can adequately respond to public requests for information, as well as the proactive and timely publication of data that is accessible to the public.

Law 31.13 has the potential to be an effective tool for empowering citizens, especially those in marginalized regions, such as those in the rural margins of the monarchy. Most of these regions have witnessed intense popular unrest over the past few years, as citizens demand improved availability of basic services, such as healthcare, electricity and clean drinking water. The recent regionalization reforms introduced in Morocco’s 2011 constitution4 and the ensuing Organic Laws5 provided a significant boost toward strengthening the role of local governance and citizen participation in the decisionmaking process. However, the realization of these goals was unlikely without citizen access to relevant information. The municipal councils are now obliged to comply with Law 31.13, which will enable citizens to scrutinize their local representatives and hold them accountable. Karim El Hajjaji, co-founder of Tafra Association6, says “So far, it is extremely difficult to know what the communes [municipalities] are doing with the public resources they have in hand. Law 31.13 makes it mandatory to publish not only their budgets, but their public procurement calls and processes, spending programs, and all information related to local governance.”7

Thus far, the diminished availability of financial resources and qualified human capital are often cited as the biggest obstacles toward the successful implementation of the law. But in practice, altering societal and institutional culture is the real challenge. The law requires the Moroccan territorial collectivities (regions and municipalities) to nominate new information officers tasked with responding to citizens’ requests. These territorial collectivities are generally showing willingness to engage and are sending their newly nominated information officers to trainings. However, Ahmed Jazouli, a Moroccan policy expert involved in the training programs of civil service agents, maintains, “The main obstacle is the culture of retaining information by civil servants. They should be trained on releasing information and on the proactive publication of data. It is essential to focus on changing the dominant culture among public servants.”8

Apart from changing bureaucratic culture, it is key to foster a political culture of transparency, which is currently lacking. Most public institutions still hold back information that may show evidence of mismanagement or misuse of public resources to avoid legal scrutiny. According to the new law, it is mandatory for municipalities to make their financial data and development plans available online, yet few municipal budgets are currently accessible online. For instance, the city council of Casablanca has made significant efforts to promote dematerialized services and to keep its website updated. This example stands in contrast to other major well-endowed cities such as Rabat, which currently lacks a website. According to Karim El Hajjaji, “It is definitely not a matter of financial resources, but rather of political will.”9

Far-reaching campaigns are also crucial for raising public awareness of the law and its impact on their everyday lives. The law offers an opportunity, but it is up to citizens to exercise their rights to ensure equitable service delivery policies. Civil society organizations have a strong role to play in this regard. For example, Transparency Maroc, together with several national and international partners, organized a group of civil society organizations to lobby for a transparent and participatory budget. Similarly, referring to the Right to Information Law, Transparency Maroc is demanding more consistent information about the special COVID-19 fund, which was set up by the Moroccan government in March 2020 to compensate those who lost income due to the lockdowns.10 Indeed, the government’s management of this fund—which supports over five million households—has received widespread criticism from activists and NGOs. Oxfam Maroc, for example, is advocating for the fund to come under parliamentary oversight and be subject to checks by the Court of Audit. Others, including Tafra, called on the government to disclose the data used to develop the scenarios for the evolution of the pandemic in Morocco. However, the Haut Commissariat au Plan refused to do so, citing personal data protection constraints. This means that researchers and experts–such as those at Tafra–are not able to quality check the scenarios put forth by the government and thus cannot be part of the decisionmaking process in terms of lockdown policy and how the special fund is spent.

Finally, the potential of the Right to Information Law cannot be assessed without taking into account the closing civic space, including the restriction of media freedom in Morocco. More recently, the government used the COVID-19 crisis to pass a new emergency law, No. 2.220.292, declaring a health emergency and setting penalties of a up to three-month prison sentence and a fine of up to 1,300 Dirham (around 134 USD), for anyone breaching “orders and decisions taken by public authorities” or for anyone “obstructing” through “writings, publications or photos” of those decisions. Apart from prosecuting more than 90,000 people for breaking the law and other crimes, authorities have used it to prosecute several human rights activists and citizen journalists, accusing them of “incitement to violate the authorities’ decisions during the health emergency,” when in fact they criticized the “cronyism” and unequal distribution of aid by local authorities during the COVID-19 crisis.

The continued crackdown on journalists and opposing voices stands in stark contrast to the government’s recent efforts aimed at increasing citizens’ trust in the government and responding to calls for transparency. Such trust is arguably a pre-condition for citizens to invoke the law and make use of its provisions. In the meantime, disenchanted citizens would rather mobilize collectively and in the streets of major cities, as in May 2020, when protestors gathered to contest their exclusion from the COVID-19 fund. In short, while the Right to Information Law is a potentially powerful tool in the hands of citizens and civil society organizations, its application and enforcement largely relies on the government’s political will and commitment to genuine reforms.

This research is part of a larger project on the dynamics of decentralization in the MENA region. The project is generously funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This blog article was first published here by the Sada Journal.

About the authors:

Marwa ShalabyMarwa Shalaby is an assistant professor in the departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses primarily on the intersection of the politics of authoritarianism, and women in politics. Follow her on Twitter @MarwaShalaby12.

Sylvia BerghSylvia Bergh is an associate professor in development management and governance at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Hague, and a senior researcher at the Centre of Expertise on Global Governance at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Her current research focuses on social accountability initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa region.

1 Seventy-eight countries and a growing number of local governments—representing more than two billion people—along with thousands of civil society organizations are members of the Open Government Partnership.

2 A recent report by the OECD points out that most MENA countries lacked access to information laws prior to the Arab uprisings. In the few MENA cases that promulgated such laws before the uprisings, many provisions penalized the sharing and communication of information without prior authorization by the relevant authorities.

3 The law states that officials who fail to provide citizens/legal residents with requested information will be subject to disciplinary actions, however, the specifics of such penalties remain unclear.

4 According to Article 1 of the 2011 amended constitution, “the territorial organization of Morocco is decentralized, and based on an advanced degree of regionalization.”

5 OL #113.14 outlines the authorities and responsibilities of the different local governance units (i.e., regions/provinces/municipalities) and it puts in place participatory mechanisms for citizens (Article 119).

6 Tafra Association is a research center in Rabat whose mission is to improve the understanding of Moroccan institutions to participate in the consolidation of the rule of law in Morocco.

7 Interview conducted by the author (Marwa Shalaby) in Rabat, February 2020 and follow-up email in June, 2020.

8 Interview conducted by the author (Marwa Shalaby) in Rabat, February 2020 and follow-up email in June, 2020.

9 Interview conducted by the author (Marwa Shalaby) in Rabat, February 2020 and follow-up email in June, 2020.

10 Getting access to this fund is even more important given the fact that 46 percent of the active population has no health insurance and 4.3 million households are employed in the informal sector without social security benefits.

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‘I will not return unless the regime of Assad falls’ by Nawras Al Husein and Natascha Wagner

The award-winning documentary film ‘For Sama’ tells the story of a mother who filmed her life in war-torn Aleppo for her newborn, Sama. The mother documented her daughter’s first moments, but also the context in which they tried to live, including the regular bombing of the hospital, the blood-covered victims, dead people and, by and by, the destruction of the city. A recent study by ISS researcher Natascha Wagner and Nawras Al Husein highlighting the voices, fears and perceptions of Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey and Germany shows that decisions by refugees to return to their country of origin are complex; the general assumption that Syrian refugees wish to return to Syria after the war has ended should not be taken as a given. The research shows the necessity of engaging with refugees to inform decisions on their future.


With the recent spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe, leading to lockdowns and causing thousands of deaths, our attention has been diverted from other ongoing crises. June 20 is International Refugee Day, and amidst the many other crises we find ourselves in, we are experiencing one of the biggest refugee crises of our time. In March 2020, the Syrian civil war entered into its 10th year. While the war is still ongoing, the future of Syrian refugees—victims of the civil war forced to flee their home country and temporarily residing in neighbouring countries and beyond—is already heavily debated.

The Syrian civil war has resulted in more than 5.9 million internally displaced people and more than 5.6 million refugees as of 1 July 2019. The majority of Syrian refugees are concentrated in the countries that border Syria, particularly Turkey, but a significant number are also hosted in EU countries, mainly Germany. Turkey hosts almost two-thirds of the Syrian refugees, while Germany had 568,785 officially registered Syrian asylum applicants by December 2019, making it the host country with the largest Syrian refugee population in Europe.

For the UN, a number of European countries hosting refugees, as well as the Syrian government, the return of Syrian refugees to their country of origin is the desired solution. The unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees over the last years has resulted in political, social, and economic challenges for host countries, with social tension rising in the wake of the mass migration in 2015. The discourse of the alleged threat that refugees pose to host communities is used by right-wing populist parties to win votes. Thus, host governments are under pressure to consider return migration scenarios given the political challenges they experience. But do Syrian refugees feel the same?

Inclusivity for informed and data-driven decision-making

The voices of Syrian refugees have seldom entered the debate on refugee policy. Therefore, in 2018, we interviewed 577 Syrian refugees in Germany (241) and Turkey (336) and explored whether they consider return migration an option, and, if so, when. We wanted to highlight the needs, aspirations, and agency of Syrian refugees in deciding upon their future. Understanding decision-making about return migration, particularly in the case of refugees, is not an easy task. Yet, for this very reason it is important to provide informed and data-driven information from the refugees themselves to host-country policy-makers.

Some of the main considerations or views informing the decision to return to Syria include:

Regime Al-Assad. We found that of the interviewed refugees in Turkey, 76% want to go back home. Among the Syrian refugees in Germany, only 55% wanted to go back. The current political regime under Al-Assad plays an important role concerning their desire to return to Syria. For the majority of refugees, an end to the current regime is needed to ensure their eventual return. For the German group, the likelihood of intended return increases by 21% if the Al-Assad regime is to be discontinued. Given that Al-Assad is still in power and the Western world is to a large extent inactively watching the conflict, host countries should not count on a speedy return of Syrian refugees, at least not voluntarily.

Civil and Political Rights. We also inquired whether other institutional preferences affected intentions to return. While refugees appreciate the democratic values of freedom of speech and belief, the data suggest that the existence of these liberties does not feed into the return migration decision in either of the host countries. Thus, simply imposing these values on the Syrian regime is unlikely to trigger mass return movements.

On-the-spot Information. Our research further analyzed whether exposure to positive or negative information regarding return migration impacted refugees’ intentions to return. The negative news item shown to respondents presented the latest facts about numerous challenges faced by Syrian refugees who returned home from Lebanon. The positive news item consisted of a leaflet with encouraging information on support for returnees, including relevant links and addresses in case of interest. We found no systematic impact on the decision to migrate back. This suggests that host governments cannot expect (rapid) information disseminated by refugee agencies—even if it is positive and provides support—to impact refugees’ decision making about their return.

Infographic Syrian Refugees returning home
The infographic can be downloaded here: https://www.iss.nl/en/news/return-migration-syria-voices-refugees-germany-and-turkey

Moving beyond repatriation agendas

 If large-scale return migration is desired, we should try to better understand the preferences and concerns of the refugees themselves. We would do well to listen to the voices of the refugees themselves, since they have very clear ideas about what would make returning worth the effort. The situation in Syria continues to be unstable and it remains to be seen whether the country can find a way back to peace in the near future.

As our research shows, the end of the war and even political change would not be enough for all refugees to consider returning. Consequently, host countries should already start investing in the integration of those refugees who stay on. Taking the stance that the presence of the Syrian refugees is entirely temporary is not what the data suggest. The integration of the Syrian refugees within the host countries, regardless of how long they intend to stay, is an opportunity that can also support return migration, as it will give visibility to the refugees and their concerns.


Source: This blog is based on Nawras Al Husein & Natascha Wagner, “Determinants of intended return migration among refugees: A comparison of Syrian refugees staying in Germany and Turkey“, June 2020.


About the authors:

Nawras Al HuseinNawras Al Husein is an ISS alumnus and currently works for CARE Netherlands as project manager and cash advisor. He is a humanitarian and development practitioner who has been managing complex emergency responses in Syria and Turkey for the last 8 years as well as early recovery and development projects in Syria and Yemen. His most recent research focuses on identifying the determinants of intended return migration among Syrian refugees hosted in Germany and Turkey.

 

Natascha WagnerNatascha Wagner is associate professor of Development Economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (Netherlands). Her research interests lie in international economics/ development, ICT for development and health. A recurring theme in her research is gender and female empowerment as well as social exclusion. Natascha has published articles in, among others, Health Economics, Economics of Education Review, Journal of Development Studies and World Development.

 


Title Image Credit: ekvidi on Flickr. The image has been cropped.