Will PR be better than BN?

Jacqueline Ann Surin, The Nut Graph

ON 4 Nov 2011, Penang became the second state in Malaysia, after Selangor, to enact a Freedom of Information (FOI) law. Neither the Penang nor Selangor FOI laws are perfect and both Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-led state governments have already been criticised for not doing better.

That’s no different from the public criticisms against the Barisan Nasional (BN) government over its Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011, which was passed by the BN-controlled Dewan Rakyat on 29 Nov 2011.

Or is there a difference? Not just between the two political coalitions but also between how each understands basic human rights? Additionally, what does it all mean for us as citizens?

International standards lacking

The Penang FOI law has been criticised for not adopting internationally-accepted standards in guaranteeing freedom of information. For example, the law does not provide for proactive routine publications of information held by the government. Indeed, this is actually something that some government agencies under the BN federal government, such as the Statistics Department, the Department of Environment, and the Communications and Multimedia Commission  are already practising.

Six civil society groups have also pointed out that the Penang law has removed a clause that stipulates a penalty for any information officer who destroys, alters or withholds information or if she or he intentionally denies access to information. “Such a preventive clause is standard inclusion in most freedom of information bills worldwide, including the Selangor Freedom of Information Enactment,” the groups said in a statement.

The lack of internationally-recognised standards is also apparent in the BN’s Peaceful Assembly Bill. Among others, the Bill, which has now been passed despite public objections, prohibits street protests. And as we already know, it also prohibits the participation of children in rallies, places too much power in the hands of the police and too many restrictions on rally organisers.

What’s the difference?

So, what’s the difference, from a human rights perspective, of having either a BN or a PR coalition in government?

The difference, if I may venture to argue, is that with at least the PR governments of Selangor and Penang, there is some inkling about what human rights is about.

The fact is, even though both the Selangor and Penang FOI enactments are imperfect and fall short of civil society groups’ expectations, the new laws were enacted to improve transparency. Citizens in Selangor and Penang now have recourse to a FOI law within the state. Prior to this, any information including about air quality, the causes for landslides, and water concession agreements could be and has been kept from public scrutiny under the federal government’s Official Secrets Act.

Conversely at the federal level, the replacement of Section 27 of the Police Act with the Peaceful Assembly Bill is meant to make things worse. No matter if the federal government denies it repeatedly. For example, the Bill prohibits “street protests” when these kinds of protests are already legally recognised in Section 27 of the Police Act.