The right of access to information falls within the general framework of freedom of expression. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the right of access to information by stipulating the right “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas.” It is a tool for democratic participation, a means of oversight of government institutions and prevention of corruption and abuse by public officials, and an instrument to promote accountability and transparency in government. The right of access to information ensures transparent conduct of public affairs. As of 2021, at least 128 countries worldwide have enacted access to information laws and adopted regulations and policies guaranteeing the public right of access to information held by public authorities. So far, Bahrain has not introduced access to information regulations, and there are shortcomings in protecting this right as well as protecting its general framework.
On 17 November 2009, the Bahraini House of Representatives approved a draft law on access to information, which was referred to the Shura Council for approval. The law was discussed by the appointed Shura Council in May 2010, where its enactment was postponed indefinitely. The Shura Council decided that a law “protecting state information and documents” should be introduced prior to adopting a law codifying the right of access to information. Indeed, Law No. 16 of 2014 was adopted regarding the protection of state information and documents, while access to information law has yet to be approved.
Article 3 of Law No. 16 of 2014 stipulates three levels of classification: “top secret,” “secret,” and “restricted.” The law sets forth escalating penalties for disclosing these documents and information according to the degree of their confidentiality. However, it does not provide any criteria for how to classify them into the three levels and leaves it to the discretion of the concerned government bodies under the same article. The law also stipulates that documents and information not classified within the three mentioned levels are “regular” and “may not be disclosed to anyone other than those concerned,” according to Article 4.
Law No. 16 of 2014 imposes significant restrictions on the right of access to information, especially with the absence of a law explicitly protecting this right. By giving government agencies the power to classify official documents and information without clear criteria, the law grants the government the right to disclose only the information it wishes to disclose and subjects citizens’ enjoyment of the right of access to information to the discretion and authority of the government. This is contrary to the fundamental premise of this right that “all information held by governments and governmental institutions is in principle public and may only be withheld if there are legitimate reasons, such as, typically privacy and security, for not disclosing it.” Even the “regular” documents and information can only be disclosed to “those concerned.” These provisions raise questions about the purpose of this law, rendering the adoption of any access to information law almost meaningless.
The right of access to information is further constrained by the overall restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. The government has been conducting a relentless crackdown on freedom of expression and systematically closing political and civil space. Dozens of provisions in Bahrain’s Penal Code criminalize criticizing government officials and agencies without taking into account the right to express opinions and the right to hold authorities accountable. Hundreds have been prosecuted and imprisoned on speech charges, including pointing out corruption in state bodies. With the restriction of the right to freedom of expression, the right of access to information loses its main objective, which is to enable the public to scrutinize the decisions of the authorities, hold government officials accountable for their actions, and prevent abuse of power. The latter is a manifestation of the former.
The failure of the government of Bahrain to enact laws that protect the right of access to information is a continuation of the non-transparency in conducting public affairs, the disregard of public opinion, and the refusal to be criticized and held accountable. Moreover, in the current atmosphere of repression, and as long as the government suppresses the right to freedom of expression, the right of access to information cannot achieve its purpose. Hence, we call on the government of Bahrain to respect the right to freedom of expression and criticize government officials and agencies, as well as enact laws that protect the right of access to information, allowing the public to exercise their civil and political rights and effectively engage in the democratic process in line with Bahrain’s international human rights obligations.