In May 2009, the Selangor state government under the Pakatan Rakyat has committed to the enactment of a FOI law. This was a result of the national campaign and strategic meetings organised by the Coalition for Good Governance with the Selangor state government in the post March 8, 2009 general elections.
In the four years of CIJ campaigning leading to the milestone, it is worth recounting some of the significant developments;
Civil society participation and support
A freedom of information coalition was established involving thirty-three civil society organisations in 2005. All the organisations involved have committed to promoting FOI in their work. Many participating organisations have very much taken this on board, incorporating FOI directly into their core work. although some have prioritised this more than others. Awareness raising has been carried out through the distribution of leaflets and stickers, and talks on the importance of access to information have been carried out during the course of the project until early this year, with a range of diverse audiences from universities to civil society groups and think tanks to trade unions.
Efforts have been made to involve the media who are increasingly covering the campaign’s events and are now playing a positive role in raising awareness on access to information.
We had meetings with the Integrity Institute Malaysia to discuss training of their trainers on ‘Institutionalising Accountability and Transparency’ but this has not materialised due to several reasons, among them resources and priority areas. The coalition was also invited to give input on the interim report for the National Integrity Plan.
The coalition has had limited success in working with Transparency International and the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), mainly due to a change in staff and leadership. However in their 2005 annual report, Suhakam highlighted the importance of FOI and Suhakam representatives have attended a number of FOI coalition meetings. Unfortunately, there has been no concrete action from them in regards to the promotion of FOI.
Participating groups and promotion of FOI
- AIDCOM: Collaborated on a number of activities including conducting training for local government officials.
- The Women’s Development Collective has developed research on FOI and its impact on women. This will be used to assess candidates in the next General Election.
- The Ipoh Postal Workers Union and CIJ organised a training on FOI for its members.
- Suaram has included a section on FOI in their annual human rights report.
- The Young Lawyers Committee, Youth 4 Change and the Centre for Public Policy Studies organised a briefing on FOI.
- The coalition worked with the Malaysian Environmental NGO network, on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration to push the FOI on a broader platform of issues.
- The Centre for Public Policy Studies and the 50:44 NGO coalition included FOI as part of the demands in commemoration of the 50 years of Merdeka and 44 years of Malaysia Day in 2007.
Representatives from both the UMNO and MCA political parties attended the launch of the report event in Kuala Lumpur in February 2007. Stanley Koh from the MCA party expressed his commitment to organising a talk for parliamentarians and a meeting was held with the MCA think tank INSAP on 14 March that year as a preliminary step, with a particular focus on FOI and biosafety. During a public ‘tea talk’ with leaders from the Youth Wing of this party, various elected leaders at both the State and Parliamentary levels made a commitment to raise the issue of a select committee to examine communication rights, including FOI in the future Parliamentary sitting. We also shared a platform with representatives from the Democratic Action Party to discuss freedom of information and they have said that they are committed to supporting freedom of information legislation.
A progressive draft freedom of information legislation was prepared as part of the project activities, in collaboration with Article 19 and members of the coalition. The Kelantan state level government made a commitment to adopt and implement a law in this area. Three FOI coalition delegates went to Kelantan from 12-15 February 2007, to raise awareness among politicians and the general public on the importance of freedom of information. The trio met with members of the state legislature (ADUNs) from both the ruling and the opposition parties to discuss the possibility of Freedom of Information legislation in Kelantan. They also leafleted at various public areas and met with representatives from Trade Unions.
The coalition presented copies of a draft Freedom of Information law to the ADUNs. In addition to Kota Bahru, the representatives also visited and met ADUNs in Kuala Krai, Tanah Merah and Jelawat. At each of these stops, they distributed FOI leaflets and engaged members of the public in discussions on FOI and what it means to them.
But it is the Selangor state government that has worked hardest in realising this reality. A similar draft was given to the Pakatan Rakyat government in 2008 and in 2009, the leadership committed to enacting the law for the state.
Talks and public awareness
The coalition members conducted talks over the course of the project and this continued into 2009 in collaboration with other civil society groups. CIJ continues to reach out to the grassroots to get as many members of the public as possible to be familiar with the law.
What is and why FOI?
Freedom of information is a fundamental human rights, as enunciated under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Malaysia, the Official Secrets Act and other legislations severely undermine this right.
Secrecy allows inefficiency, wastefulness and corruption to thrive. But most government however prefer to conduct their business in secret. The convenient reasons for maintaining secrecy are national security and public order, but are these acceptable to override the public’s right to know? We are asked to pay more for public services and goods, but not allowed to know the terms of contracts for supplying those? We aren’t allowed to know how our EPF money was invested, but are asked to accept the lower dividend whenever the investment didn’t yield the expected return. We are discouraged to know about why a lives-claiming landslide occur, even as we funded the probe.
Therefore a set of standard is needed for the public to measure the official reasons against their fundamental interest for information. The following principles are developed by the Article 19 and are the basis of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Government information should be public information. We want to have access to all information, unless there is a good reason to keep it from us.
We want to know when we want to know, not when the Government wants to tell us. Facts about water and air quality, the criterias for awarding a contract; these should be made available
Independent, administrative oversight body
The government (not any self-appointed censors) don’t get to say what we get to know. Somebody who’s not going to benefit from the failures or corruptions in Government should decide, which is unlike in the current Official Secrets Act where the power to declassify is in the hand of the Minister, Chief Minister or officials authorized by them.
Promotion of open government
Civil service should trained on the culture of delivering information to the public, not preventing them from obtaining it.
Some things can be kept secret, such as private data and military information. FOI is not about stopping the police to catch criminals. But there should be good, tight reasons for having secrets. It should be about protecting us, not protecting corruption.
We shouldn’t have to pay, or only a marginal cost. We shouldn’t also have to spend three days filing in ten forms and wait for a month after that, to find out what’s in the air we breathe.
We should be able to see what the Government is up to. Before a hill is being destroyed to make to build more houses, we want to be there. Meetings, whether about education or advertising billboards, should be open because these are decisions that affect us.
Reviewing other legislation
There is a need to ensure that implementation of the FOI law will not be impeded by existing laws.
If you expose corruption, you should be rewarded, not punished or transferred to some far away place.
FOI law to be reviewed regularly
What’s good today might not be so good tomorrow. That’s why there is a need to periodically check to see if the FOI legislation is still working.