A new app advocates for Palestine’s need for progressive access-to-information legislation.by Creede Newton, Al Jazeera
Ramallah: An online platform that aims to open up access to information for citizens and increase accountability for politicians, was launched in the occupied West Bank on March 1.
The YouKnow Initiative is designed to bring activists, journalists, bloggers and citizens together with decision-makers, including the Palestinian Authority (PA), healthcare providers, telecommunications, and businesses.
The platform “resembles Facebook, Twitter; any number of social media sites,” said Saed Karzoun, the founder of YouKnow. Once they register, Palestinians “can post anything they want, without limits”, Karzoun told Al Jazeera. Currently, the application is available only via web browsers, but Karzoun hopes to build a smartphone application in the future.
Complaints, documented through videos and photos, about unpaved roads or unfinished infrastructure, for example, can be posted along with 300 characters of text. The user selects the official to whom the report will be sent from a list of officials and ministries. It then becomes available for all users to read.
After the complaint is posted, a “change” button allows for the official to respond. They can show that the issue has been addressed, or explain that it’s not within their domain.
“We hope to address people’s anger and frustration against decision-makers,” Karzoun explained. “The more information [officials] provide, the more understanding there will be between Palestinians and their leaders.”
Currently, there is no legislation guaranteeing freedom of access to information for Palestinians. The issue, however, has been hotly debated for years.
In 2005, a freedom of information bill was introduced for the first time, but since the suspension of the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2007, and due to Israel’s systematic targeting and detention of elected representatives as well as the internal Palestinian split, the motion has made no headway.
In December 2012, a committee of four legal experts, established by the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), revised and amended the 2005 draft law on the right to access information.
A public campaign was also organised to bring together civil society activists, parliamentarians, access-to-information experts, journalists and Palestinian government officials to improve the draft law and advocate for its approval.
The campaign titled “Information is Power” advocated for Palestine’s need for progressive access-to-information legislation.
The result, according to analysts, has been a much-improved draft law and a decision by then-Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to ensure that the law is scheduled in the 2014 legislative calendar of the Palestinian government.
The amended draft law has been given positive assessment by independent international organisations like article 19 which pointed out that the draft law “contains many positive features such as; all public and private bodies receiving state funding or performing public work are obliged to provide information and setting up [an] information commissioner that will monitor the implementation of the law and examines complaints against denials of requests of information”.
In February 2014, the then new prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, showed support for the access-to-information initiative by publishing the draft, as amended by MADA, on his official website.
“We support the freedom of access to information,” Nida Younis, head of the Ministry of Information’s public relations told Al Jazeera. Younis added that “the draft law is currently awaiting approval”.
Younis also said the ministry supports YouKnow, and looks forward to collaborating with Karzoun. In Younis’ view, the platform will allow for all Palestinians to “have their say”, and pave the way for increased accountability.
“High-ranking personnel will no longer be able to say, ‘I didn’t know about this problem, I didn’t hear about it,'” she said.
A few months ago, Karzoun was informed by government officials that the same 2012 draft law on access to information was being considered, but it soon died out. “This is the problem, they (officials) begin discussing something, and then they stop.”
“The government needs to know how the people feel. They need to know what concerns them, what angers them. Hopefully it will motivate the government to introduce the law,” Karzoun concluded.