Fifty-nine civil society groups today expressed surprise that the Selangor Mentri Besar appeared to be backtracking on his commitment to introduce a freedom of information law in the state. According to press reports, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim said that the Federal Constitution provided that state laws would be declared null and void if they contravened a federal law, in this case the Official Secrets Act 1972 (OSA).
Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim also said in an interview to mark the Pakatan Rakyat’s first 100-days in government that he had yet to implement the full declassification of documents, a pledge he made soon after he took office. He said that it was difficult to do so given that he did not know whether the document was classified by the federal government or by the previous state government.
Khalid had pledged at a meeting with 55 civil society groups, under the banner of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) on 16 April, to introduce the law this year and to invite the other states under the Pakatan Rakyat to make a united stand in the interest of good governance.
The CGG, Civil Society Initiative for Parliamentary Reform (CSI), Writer Alliance for Media Independence, Centre for Policy Initiatives and Benar want to remind the Mentri Besar of his pledge when he took office and at their meeting two months ago, where he also promised to follow up with the legal adviser on the draft Freedom Of Information (FOI) bill they had prepared.
The 59 civil society groups wish to point out that Item 7 of the State List in the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution gives to state governments jurisdiction over “machinery of state government”. This would include rules and regulations governing the decision-making process and associated documents. A Selangor Freedom of Information Enactment could regulate these matters and would clearly be within the ambit of the constitutional jurisdiction given to state governments. Any statement to the contrary would be tantamount to signing away states’ rights and weakening the concept of federalism in Malaysia.
The civil society groups emphasised that while the OSA provides for the automatic classification of specified categories of documents, it in no way compels or forces the government and its officers to use it in respect of other types of documents. In any event, there is a clear provision that enables a state government to declassify documents that had previously been classified.
There are many opportunities for the state government to practice openness. The first is to make a policy statement that it will not apply the OSA to classify documents as secret. It could also state that it will not enter into any business agreements or arrangements that contain a business confidentiality clause. The terms should be open for all to see. What is needed is for these kinds of policy statements entrenched as part of state law.
This would then be followed by a clear plan and timeline for the declassification process of important public documents and to conduct broad-based public consultation on public’s access to information. As long as the information does not impinge on national security, defence and international relations, or deal with decisions and documents of the Federal Cabinet, the state government has the power to declassify state Executive Council documents, records of decisions and deliberations, including those of state Executive Council committees.
The government can definitely make public all information that is of public interest but this process must also be participatory to ensure that there is no abuse of power to withhold some information.
If the MB is serious about having the FOI, then he must start with the establishments of a task force to review existing practices and the draft law for the state level.
On a related matter, the groups welcomed the Penang state government’s move to set up a freedom of information committee but asked that the terms of reference of the committee be made public for wider discussion.
The groups also reminded the MB and the leaders of the Pakatan Rakyat in Penang, Kedah, Kelantan and Perak to support Subang Member of Parliament R. Sivarasa who had tabled a Private Member’s Bill on Freedom of Information during the first Parliamentary sitting in May. The draft bill was prepared by the Centre for Independent Journalism and CSI-Parliament in consultation with civil society groups and experts on the law.
Issued by Coalition for Good Governance, Civil Society Initiative for Parliamentary Reform, Writers Alliance for Media Independence, Centre for Policy Initiatives and Benar. The CGG is a coalition of 55 non-governmental organisations, while CSI-Parliament is a group of individuals from civil society.