Lebanon: Parliament maintains momentum on bills

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 Numerous additional laws and amendments were passed Thursday as Parliament concluded a second legislative session in as many days while news of controversial items sparked rallies and protest.

 

On the second day of legislation, Parliament held morning and evening sessions to continue discussing the remaining items on the legislature’s 73-article agenda before adjourning the session until next Thursday.

The day’s proceedings were dominated by the discussion of a contentious rent law.

Chaired by Speaker Nabih Berri and in the presence of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Parliament approved amendments to the rent law that will create a fund to aid tenants unable to meet rent increases under a previously passed law from 2014.

During the four-hour first round, Parliament set a four-month deadline to form the fund, freezing the implementation of the new law until then.

MP Ziad Aswad, who expressed support for tenants associations that oppose the law, demanded lawmakers discuss a second draft law he had proposed on the same issue. However, he was overruled.

Tenants groups have been calling on lawmakers to revoke a 2014 rent law, while landlords have been pushing for amendments that increase their new powers.

The law will affect approximately 200,000 apartments – mostly in Beirut and its suburbs – which are leased under the old rent law that was in effect prior to 1992.

These tenants pay rents that are often less than LL1 million ($667) a year and are protected from rent increases. The new law will see their rents rise incrementally over the next six years until it reaches 4 percent of their home’s value. It also gives landlords the right to take back a property after nine years without paying tenants compensation.

However, tenants marched from Ashrafieh’s Sassine Square to the Maronite archdiocese of Beirut at 5 p.m. Thursday to deliver a letter to Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai concerning the 2014 law.

They ended their march with a protest in Riad al-Solh Square, just meters from Parliament.

Parliament also approved a “Right to Access to Information” law that was presented by MP Ghassan Moukheiber, years after the draft was submitted. The MP hailed the Parliament’s decision, saying it was the fruit of collaboration between civil society and governmental agencies.

“The bill was originally initiated and drafted within a broad network the Lebanese Network for Access to Information – that was shared by the Lebanese Parliamentarians against Corruption Organization,” he told The Daily Star. The Lebanese Transparency Association is among the entities that were included in the network and that worked on the law. “This process led to the drafting of a bill in 2009 that was submitted to Parliament by myself with other members of the Lebanese Parliamentarians against Corruption that has been in debate ever since. Finally, it was voted on today,” he added. “So it was process that took about eight to nine years.”

Moukheiber explained that any document, contract or map that is produced by institutions either in a physical or electronic format was included under the law. “Access to information can happen through two ways: either automatically or by application,” he said. “Automatic means that an amount of information must be published electronically on the websites of all parties that are bound by law. So [they must] make available online a number of documents including yearly activity reports and the detailed enforcement regulations that are normally issued by ministries and other governmental agencies.”

As for the application method, the lawmaker said that it is open to any person, Lebanese or not. He also added that the party would not even need to state a specific interest in receiving the document.

As for the entities that will be required to publish information voluntarily, Moukheiber identified them as the various government agencies, independent authorities, municipalities and some companies providing public service and any public entity.

“All of these are bound to [follow] the law and that’s a major development ... and broadens the concept of parties that are bound to provide access to information,” he said. “But there are exceptions. There are number of documents ... related to secrets such as security and diplomatic secrets and other information that in specific laws are considered to be confidential, such as medical confidentiality. The law [also] includes a section on the protection of personal data,” he said.

Some documents will also carry a fee for access, but upon payment the information must be released.

On a separate item, Parliament postponed discussions on the possibility of separating demands by contract workers at the Information Ministry from those put forward by other civil servants.

During the morning and evening sessions, the Information Ministry workers protested against Parliament’s failure to approve a bill that would enroll them in the civil servants’ pension system and cooperative assistance program.

The workers also threatened to stop covering news for the state-run National News Agency after Hariri asked for a 10-day period to restudy the draft law. He said that if no agreement was reached in time the Information Ministry contractors would be separated from the other civil servants demands.

Berri is expected to call a session on Feb.18 to discuss the matter as officials were keen to manage concerns.

“The draft law has been discussed enough by the joint parliamentary committees,” NNA Director Laure Sleiman said at the protest. “Some of us have been working for 20 or 40 years [at the institution] in exchange for meager salaries ... We want to guarantee our retirement pensions.”

The Parliament also agreed amendments to a medical practice law. During the discussion, MPs expressed their desire to preserve medical practice and to facilitate the work of doctors.

Lawmakers also agreed on a law to secure medical assistance to the retired. MP Atef Majdalani hailed the endorsement saying that it achieves social justice. “It is financially engineered in a way that provides continuity and social coverage for the family,” Majdalani said.

The lawmakers also postponed discussion on creating a new governorate in Mount Lebanon in the districts of Jbeil and Kesrouan after local media reported that it was a point of disagreement between some lawmakers.

This Article has been cross-posted from Zawya News Portal