Tunisia's Second Act: Noting Progress, Accountability Actors Demand Contract Transparency

Tunisia has been celebrated by the international community as a beacon of hope and as fertile ground for transitional democracy in a region rocked by political conflict and unrest.

Since the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government has made important strides towards achieving transparency and including accountability actors—namely members of the media and civil society organizations (CSOs)—in national decision-making and public debate. Indeed, these actors played prominently in the passage of a new constitution in January 2014 and the government's subsequent joining of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Former prime minister Mehdi Jomaa dubbed this reform process “start-up democracy” in an effort to solicit international support and encourage investment.

Capitalizing on these gains, the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) has assisted Tunisia's CSOs and journalists in their efforts to hold the government to its promises, and to push extractive industry transparency further up the reform agenda. Thanks in part to public debate involving NRGI partners, the new constitution protects citizens' rights to natural resources. CSOs have also prioritized extractive industry transparency in the country's OGP action plan, a commitment that requires the Ministry of Industry to make information related to investments in petroleum and mining publicly accessible in an open data format.

Bridging knowledge gaps

To sustain progress and highlight shortfalls, this increased public demand for transparency and good governance of natural resources must be complimented by informed and balanced reporting. To that end, NRGI has also trained a number of investigative journalists from print, online and broadcast outlets. These efforts have enabled young journalists to report on extractive issues in an accurate, accessible, and objective manner.

As the debate around transparency and good governance grows more informed, CSOs and the media have turned their attention to more intricate and delicate issues related to the extractive sector, namely contracts and contract disclosure.

The issue of contract disclosure remains at the center of controversy. While Article 13 of the constitution now stipulates the review and approval of all extractive industry contracts by a specialized committee within the parliament, the approved version of the article falls short of the contract publication obligation that was emphasized in the original wording.

Because informed debate around contract transparency requires a basic understanding of legal frameworks, NRGI's most recent workshops, in February of this year, introduced reporters and CSO actors with legal backgrounds to advocacy tools such as access-to-information decrees and the OGP commitments related to extractive industry transparency.

Sihem Bouazza, a lawyer and president of NRGI grantee l'Association Tunisienne de Droit de Developpement (ATDD, the Tunisia chapter of International Development Law Organization), is among those participants who have benefited. “Although I have over 10 years of experience working on hydrocarbon sector reform in Tunisia, the topics covered during this workshop are very useful to our association as a whole, as it helps present our members with an in-depth understanding of the opportunities and challenges related to accessing information in this field,” Bouazza said.

Similarly, 17 members of the media gained tools for advocating for contract disclosure and acquiring information that is not disclosed by the government. “The journalists' approach is becoming more professional,” said Adel Zarrouk, a reporter. “Journalists covering the different sides of the extractive industry transparency debate are now doing so in an impartial, objective, and analytical manner.”

Breaking down barriers

Indeed, at the outset of the training, journalists showed distrust toward information from official sources and aversion to communication with government representatives. The result was tension and mutual distrust between journalists and the government.

To bridge stakeholders and encourage dialogue, NRGI invited Kais Mejri, the legal advisor and head of good governance within the Ministry of Industry, to both workshops to discuss the open data platform and to answer participants' questions about the government's reforms.

Mejri stated that the open data platform is an initiative that aims to improve information sharing by the government. “A lot of key information remains unpublished, such as the government's detailed expenses,” he said. “This information is necessary to evaluate transparency, establish trust with the citizens, and fight corruption”

To further illustrate this shift, he invited Zarrouk to produce a documentary on the extractive industry sector in Tunisia, in partnership with the Ministry of Industry. Already, Zarrouk's short reportage on extractive industry contracts—part of a one-hour special on al Mutawasset TV—has exposed the public to an issue that has, for decades, been fraught with opacity and ambiguity.

The workshops set the foundation for increased and highly publicized pressure for contract disclosure. Just as Zarrouk and other trained journalists have begun to produce quality reporting on contract transparency, CSOs are preparing to submit proposals to NRGI that will help them exercise their right to access information related to extractive industry contracts.

ATDD's Bouazza hopes to undertake a project to instigate reform of the legal framework and administrative processes. “The public views officials as necessarily corrupt and accomplice to the opacity surrounding extractive industry contracts,” he said. “It is important to emphasize that the main issue is the legal framework, which institutionalizes lack of access to information related to extractive industries, even within the circles of high-ranking government officials.”

Hanen Keskes is NRGI's Tunisia associate.