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FOI Bill not up to expectation

July 23, 2010
Tabling FOI bill good move but disappointing
Christine Chan
Jul 22, 10
4:18pm Malaysiakini.com

The newly tabled Freedom of Information (FOI) enactment is a commendable move but should be improved before being adopted as law, according to the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG).

The NGO had set up a task force which had been instrumental in pushing the Selangor state government into passing the bill.

CGG had presented a draft of their recommended FOI to the Selangor government prior to the tabling last week.

NONETask Force on the FOI Legislation Gayathry Venkiteswaran (right) said that although tabling such a bill is a milestone for the state government, much improvement is needed.

“We are somewhat discouraged by what was tabled,” she said at a press conference in Petaling Jaya today.

She added that it was disappointing to find that the bill had been significantly watered down.

Info rightfully belongs to people

“There seems to be no guarantee of right to information, rather it had been defined as an opportunity to obtain information,” she said.

The tabled bill, Gayathry said, is premised on the assumption that it is the state government that owns the information contrary to the general principle that it actually belongs to the people.

“The exemption provided in the bill is too wide and ambiguous,” she said, highlighting another concern.

She added that the exemption should be specified and clearly defined using the principle of exceptions to determine if the information should be accessible or not.

“We should ask if this information and its release will harm national security. However, although there might be harm, it should be distinguished if there is an overriding interest for the information to be made available,” she said.

So if the overriding interest is in favour of the information be made available, then the people should have the right to it.

NONEAnother concern of CGG is that the cost to be incurred in requesting the information is not specified.

“It is dangerous as the exact cost is not listed out because this can create an opportunity to impede the process and refuse information to the public ,” Gayathry said.

She also raised the questionable nature of the Appeal Board’s role.

The bill provides that the board be chaired by a person with legal experience and should not comprise more than six members.

“The final decision is in the hands of the chairman and that seems undemocratic. Also the bill states that the decision of the appeal board is final and cannot be challenged in court,” she said.

Another tug of war sign

In their draft, the NGO had recommended that an independent commission be made up of democratically elected persons to be set up instead, she said.

Nevertheless the group is happy with the appointment of a select committee.

“We are glad that the select committee has been set up. It’s important for them to provide the fine tuning to improve the bill,” Gayathry said, adding that they have requested a meeting to discuss the matter further with them.

She also pointed out that the committee could specify the budget of the bill to see how much the implementation will cost.

On why the wide difference between the FOI tabled and the FOI discussed with the exco , Gayathry said that this could be due to the fact that the bill was drafted by the State legal advisor and not by the excos themselves.

“In our engagement with the state, we are on the same page but this is not what was promised,” she said.

She stressed that the state excos were very open and had promised that the fundamentals were adhered to.

Rebutting critics that the FOI is unconstitutional, she said that it is not unconstitutional and that the constitution provides the state residual power to legislate.

derek fernandez on landslide 020606 pointing outPetaling Jaya City Council Councillor Derek Fernandez (left) who was present explained that FOI is not contradictory to the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

Lots of documents classified under the OSA are in the hands of the menteri besar to declassify, therefore if he does so with documents unrelated to national security, then there should be no conflict, he said.

Gayathry said that the move to table the FOI showed that the state government had the political will to change and that this reflects badly on the federal government which had shown no intention do so at its level .

“Eighty countries in the world have this law and Selangor will be one of them soon,” she added.

The FOI enactment was tabled for its first reading in the Selangor state assembly on July 14.

The bill seeks to create the post of one information officer for each state department to assist the public in accessing the documents sought for.

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