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In Iran, access to information law provides important tool for environmental activists

Iranians sit on the 33 Arches bridge over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan, which now runs dry due to water extraction before it reaches the city, 11 April 2018
Iranians sit on the 33 Arches bridge over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan, which now runs dry due to water extraction before it reaches the city, 11 April 2018

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on article19.org on 29 June 2018.

Scientists, journalists and activists are increasingly speaking out against Iran's severe environmental problems, but it has never been more risky. Since protests broke out in December 2017, scores have been arrested on vague charges of espionage. Many of these individuals are connected to environmental activism and wildlife protection, such as Iranian-Canadian professor of sociology, Kavous Seyed Emami, who tragically died in prison and Deputy Head of Iran's Department of Environment Kaveh Madani, forced to flee the country following intense pressure from hardliners. Challenging environmental issues involves speaking truth to governments and powerful corporations, risks endured by environmental activists around the world. But using access to information mechanisms can help citizens have more impact on the issues which affect their lives. Iran's new Freedom of Information Act provides Iranians a vital tool to investigate how authorities are responding to - and worsening - environmental stresses and helps mitigate the biggest risks they face.

ARTICLE 19 has launched a new guide to making information requests in Iran. Under Iran's "Publication and Free Access to Information Act", citizens have a right to information of public interest. Any information from the safety rating of a hospital to the environmental impact of a building project can be requested by citizens as their right. Iranians can now also demand their personal records including medical and social insurance from government bodies. In Iran - where the government withholds vital information of its activities and penalises those who ask too many questions - this law provides new opportunities for all citizens to access the information they need and push for transparency.


Challenging Iran's environmental issues using access to information

In recent years, Iranians have increasingly focused on the country's severe environmental problems. These include mounting water shortages, record levels of air pollution, sand and dust storms, threatened biodiversity and the drought of Lake Urumia, the exacerbation of which is widely attributed to high-level mismanagement and short-sighted policies. However, the recent crackdown has caused anxiety and fear for Iranians working on environmental issues. Silencing environmental activists and academics allows such projects to continue uncontested. Unfortunately, environmental activists the world over experience similar challenges, particularly in Latin America where activists face a range of threats. Working on environmental issues means questioning not only governmental procedures and the legality of policies or projects, but also powerful multinational corporations. The risks can be high.

But there are ways to continue working. Iran's access to information law means citizens can find out how public officials are spending money, operating services and making decisions - all key to understanding and challenging environmental issues. Citizens can make requests to local and central government about environmental issues that affect them, most easily through the official request portal. An information request about a proposal for a new dam could include how much funding has been assigned to tackling effects of pollution or sand storms; how a new commercial project scored in an environmental impact assessment; or who is in charge of waste disposal in your area. The potential topics for information requests are unlimited, but there are certain exceptions within the law to navigate and requesters should check that the information they seek hasn't already been published. ARTICLE 19's guide gives guidance on making information requests in Iran. Many Iranians are already making requests to access information that was not available to them before.

The access to information process created by the government can be useful for those hoping to continue working on environmental issues. Many Iranians arrested have faced espionage charges and accusations of sharing information with foreign agents. Through Iran's new access to information process, the receiver can clearly demonstrate where information has come from and - crucially - any information granted in response to a request is effectively public information. It can and should be shared , reducing the likelihood of espionage or illegal information-sharing accusations. Despite this, we still advise citizens to avoid requests on controversial topics, and to be strategic about how to use information received. As you can see from our "how to make a request guide," any request is linked to the personal information of the citizens requesting information.

Working on environmental issues in Iran has never been more important - or more risky. The new Freedom of Information Act provides crucial tools that can help mitigate the dangers and enable those invested in the issues to arm themselves with greater knowledge. Learning how to use this process is important to safely pursue information and advance environmental causes to benefit all Iranians.

See our guide to help you make information requests.

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