As climate-related disasters become more frequent, access to all relevant information is critical in dealing with the risks we face, writes Sonia Randhawa.
Earlier in December, the government and civil society held a joint discussion about the long-promised right to information legislation and the shape it might take.
Informed by experts from across the region, the discussions helped to give some ideas about the shape a Malaysian law might take. The important issues raised included ease of access, how to define exemptions to the right to information, and ways of engaging with the civil service to see how the law can protect them from abuses of power, either by the public or by ministers.
The right to information, however, is a cross-cutting right; it has an impact on the exercise of almost every other right, including the right to life, which encompasses the right to a safe future, the right to a clean environment and the right to a world on a trajectory away from the climate crisis.
There is pertinent information held by government that can help us navigate an increasingly risky future. We need to know the risks our communities face, whether from rising sea levels or from increased pollution as the haze becomes more common; the scenarios for transitioning away from fossil fuels; and what subsidies are being paid to fossil fuel companies (or by fossil fuel companies, in the case of Petronas).
Take for example, the infamous haze. We now are given access to the Air Pollution Index – but this information is made available by the largesse of the government rather than because of any enshrined legal right.
Infamously, in the late 1990s, when thick smoke from peat fires across the Straits blanketed the nation, the government – under the same prime minister (with Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy) – declared the API an official secret, because it endangered national security. The justification was that disclosure would hit the tourism industry, and this was a national security concern.
This stance showed a distinct disregard for the health and wellbeing of people living, working, playing and studying in Malaysia, who just didn’t know what safety measures they should take to keep themselves and their families safe.
Under a robust right to information law, such a blanket ban on information would be illegal. Any right to information law would have exemptions that allow the government to keep secrets, but these have to be first narrowly defined. So information pertaining to national security would have to be about defence and similar matters – not pollution.
Second, if information is to be kept secret, it needs to be shown that diclosure would actually harm the rationale for the exemption ie would the release of the API actually cause harm to national security, even if it is allowed that it is a matter of national security? Given that Singapore and Indonesian Borneo were both releasing their APIs, it would be hard to maintain that such disclosure was really going to bring solace to an imagined foreign foe.
Even if disclosure was seen to cause harm to national security, there is a third test: Is there an overriding public interest? Clearly, yes, there is an overriding public interest: the health and wellbeing of those breathing in the haze.
As we know, access to the API doesn’t stop the haze. It just allows us all to make better decisions about the risks we face.
As climate-related disasters increase in both frequency and intensity, having access to this sort of information is critical. A solid right to information is just one tool in the armoury in the fight against both climate crisis and the impacts of climate crisis.