Watered-down freedom

By Ken Vin Lek. Free Malaysia Today

PETALING JAYA: Selangor is the first state to table the Freedom of Information (FOI) Enactment, but it has been “severely” watered down. “It doesn’t truly reflect the spirit of the law,” says Gayathry Venkiteswaran, the head of the task force set up under the umbrella of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG), a non-governmental organisation.

When Selangor mooted the FOI proposal, it was greeted with much enthusiasm. It was seen as a symbol of a new open and transparent government. The enactment was tabled at the Selangor State Legislative Assembly on July 14 by Elizabeth Wong, the executive councillor in charge of consumer affairs, tourism and environment.

Speaking to reporters at the Petaling Jaya City Council headquarters recently, Gayathry said the watered-down version has serious weaknesses.

“We note with concern that the enactment has serious weaknesses that could jeopardise the spirit of the legislation. We call for a scrutiny of the law and propose that it be strengthened to reflect the true intent of any good FOI legislation,” she said.

Open to potential abuse

Gayathry said the FOI enactment had gone against its principles – ensuring maximum disclosure of information, routine publication of information, and the need for an independent body to monitor it.

“The enactment that was tabled proposes that every individual will have the ‘opportunity’ to access public information but does not entrench the right of the individual to seek and obtain information.

“The enactment is still premised on the idea that the state government owns the information and only allows people access to it instead of holding the information on behalf of the people, who have a right to access it,” she said.

She noted that there are several provisions in the enactment which could potentially be abused to prevent the exercise of right to access information.

“One of the sections requires the person seeking information to ‘state the reason and purpose’ of his application. Now this means that he could be disqualified (from seeking information) based on the judgment of the appointed information officer.”

A-G an impediment

When asked why the FOI did not live up to the original draft submitted by the CGG to Wong, Gayathry said: “It is very clear that all parties, NGOs and the state government wanted the ideal plan tabled. However, I dare say that the state legal advisers and the Attorney-General (A-G) have been an impediment in the tabling of the enactment.”

“The state legal advisers should be responsible to the state and not to the A-G’s Chambers. This is our main concern.”