Egypt cut off the Internet, but people in North Africa and the Middle East have been living in an information black hole for years. On many leading indicators of transparency, access to government information, freedom of information and corruption, countries in the region rank abysmally low.
As the crisis in Egypt unfolds, many have expressed shock that Egypt has been unplugged from the Internet. As a source of information, communication, entertainment and, dare we say, distraction, the Internet has come to be seen by many as an essential service. Many citizens in North Africa and the Middle East, though, have been living in an information black hole for years. On many leading indicators of transparency, access to government information, freedom of information, and corruption, countries in the region rank abysmally low.
Access to information on government budgets is a basic element of a functioning compact between citizens and their government in a democratic society. The Open Budget Index put out by the International Budget Partnership ranks countries on the availability of basic budget information such as budget proposals, enacted budgets, and audit reports. Egypt scored 49 out of 100, while Algeria and Saudi Arabia scored 1 out of 100 and Iraq scored 0. Of the countries surveyed in the region, Jordan ranked highest with 50 out of 100.
Many of the countries in the region are rich in natural resources but for the most part governments have studiously ignored the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) since its founding in 2003. EITI is designed to increase public access to information about payments from extractive industry companies and governments. Only Yemen and Iraq are participating, with Yemen becoming the first country in the Middle East to publish an EITI report reconciling company payments and government receipts in the oil and gas sector. While Doha-based Al-Jazeera has been hailed for its coverage of Egyptian uprising, the government in Qatar has not seen fit to join EITI, even after hosting the 4th global EITI conference in 2009 at the opulent Ritz-Carlton Doha.
While countries around the developed and developing world have adopted “Freedom of Information” legislation, a 2010 survey noted that only Jordan had passed such a law. Civil society activists in the region, some organized in the Arab Freedom of Information Network, issued a “Cairo Declaration on Access to Information in the Arab World” in 2009, noting that most countries in the region “criminalize the availability, exchange and publishing of information without permission from the competent authorities.”
Truly “stable” governments share information with their citizens. Would difficult questions get asked with more transparency? Of course. But it is on the basis of information and discussion that a democratic foundation is built.