Freedom of information: A basic right

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The widest consultation is necessary to ensure the FOI Act lives up to the expectations of the rakyat, says Anil Netto.

Status of freedom of information laws across the world

One of the most basic of rights in a democracy is the right to freedom of information. This right allows ordinary people to make informed decisions and enables them to hold politicians accountable.

In that sense, freedom of information and the right to information are empowering. If the people do not have the ability to obtain accurate information and make informed decisions, what is the meaning of their right to freedom of expression and assembly?

Access to relevant information allows ordinary people to participate and influence decision-making. They can also become whistle-blowers, holding those in public office accountable.

That would make politicians wary of engaging in corrupt or unethical practices, whether in procurement, award of contracts and dealings with Big Business. The right to freedom of information is therefore essential to good governance.

No wonder over 85 countries around the world have enacted freedom of information laws. The Selangor state government’s decision to table an Freedom of Information Bill is a step in that direction. The state government has already invited civil society groups to provide feedback – and they have had plenty to say about the draft bill.

Now, the Penang state government is set to follow suit. Notwithstanding the state government’s commitment to Competence, Accountability and Transparency, its announcement that it too would table an FOI Bill has caught civil society activists in Penang by surprise.

These plans to enact freedom of information laws have generally been widely welcomed. Civil society groups like the Centre for Independent Journalism, however, are more cautious: they say we we should hold back on the standing ovation until the state shows it is serious about enacting a meaningful FOI law. Such a law should include best practices in FOI legislation to ensure maximum transparency and openness. In fact, a good FOI law should guarantee the public access to reliable and relevant information.

Among the key features that CIJ pointed out should be included in a meaningful FOI Act are the principles of maximum disclosure, narrow exemptions, the protection of whistle-blowers, and the routine publication of information. Simple procedures should be in place to enable the public to gain access to information at a minimal cost. An independent administrative oversight body too has to be put in place.

Now that the Penang FOI Bill is ready, let’s hope it will be made widely available to the public. (After all, it is a Freedom of Information Bill.). Early circulation of the Bill would enable the public to compare it with civil society’s proposed bill, which was drafted by a Freedom of Information Coalition. They would then be able to find out if the Penang state government has included in its version of the Bill the key features mentioned above and addressed the shortcomings in the Selangor FOI Bill, which Sarajun Hoda highlights in the accompanying article.

The widest consultation is necessary to ensure the finished product – an FOI Act – is meaningful and lives up to the expectations of the rakyat.

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