Two weeks ago, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani signed into law a landmark legislation passed by parliament that guarantees the right to information.
According to the legislation, failure by public institutions and officials to provide information is punishable by the law. Although the penalties are inadequate, the legislation itself provides strong incentive for institutions and officials to publicly remain on the right side of the law.
This important act will definitely create a better atmosphere for transparency and good governance, if properly put into practice by the public, the media and also public institutions and officials.
The demands of the law mean that the various parties involved will have to be ready for the new rules of the game. This legislation is a game changer in Kurdistan and – if it succeeds – can be a model for the rest of Iraq and the Middle East.
The public institutions will have to have a very robust electronic system for archiving and disseminating information. They should also be prepared for questions from the public and the media. Failure to so will make them failed institutions in the eyes of the public.
The media, on the other hand, have a golden opportunity to contribute to creating an open government. by asking the right questions and ensuring the answers are clearly and fairly presented to the public.
The media must remember that the legislation obligates public institutions and public officials to provide information. This includes the political parties in both government and opposition, since they receive public funds.
For example, it will be perfectly legal to ask any public official their salary and expenses.
Therefore, a big part of the responsibility lies with the media: The legislation will open many doors to the media, which in turn must have the right professionals, who understand the law and know how to use it in their work.
Many other positive aspects of this legislation can be recounted. But in short, it presents a great opportunity to move Kurdistan to the next level.
In a paper that I delivered about two months ago at a media conference, I started by looking at the Iraqi law that governs Kurdistan as well, and searched for the number of times certain words or phrases were mentioned that interest both politicians and journalists.
I found that the words “general security” and “secrecy” appeared respectively 82 times and 230 times, often used as excuses by officials and institutions not to divulge information to the public or the media.
In contrast, the words “transparency” was mentioned four times, and “right to information” was not there at all.
But the new law removes those barricades behind which officials have loved to hide for so long. As a result, Kurdistan could be moving toward a healthier relationship between the media and its politicians.