Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Report on Penang FOI Forum (English session)

Forum: Penang Freedom of Information Act


  • YB Jagdeep Singh Deo (Chairman of Select Committee for FOI Enactment Penang)
  • Ms Sonia Randhawa (Director, Centre for Independent Journalism)
  • Ms Rowena Yam (Chief of Gerakan Penang Political Training Bureau)
Moderator: Dr Lim Mah Hui (Economist, MPPP Councillor)

The forum was held at the Penang Caring Society Complex on a Sunday afternoon and attended by about 60 people.

A section of the audience
The panelists (from left): YB Jagdeep, moderator Dr Lim and Ms Rowena. Sonia not in the picture.
YB Jagdeep reported that more than 60 feedback on the draft FOI Enactment were received from NGOs and the public. Invitations have been sent to all of them to attend the public consultation with the Select Committee which would be held over 2 days starting from 14 Feb. 28 have accepted the invitation to attend. Jagdeep agreed that there are several provisions in the draft bill that need amendments and called on the public to continue sending in their feedback. He said the public consultation period will be extended if necessary to hear all the feedback. The draft bill will be tabled for the second reading in the next state assembly.
Sonia Randhawa from Centre for Independent Journalism
Sonia Randhawa said that freedom of information and the right to information should be guided by 10 basic principles based on international standards. One of the principles is maximum disclosure where government information should be public information unless there are good reasons to withhold them. There must be an independent administrative oversight body to decide what information cannot be disclosed to the public. She gave the example of India which has an open appointment selection of their information commissioners. Sonia said that the current draft bill has many flaws. Requestors for information need to state what they want to use the information for. They can be liable of a fine of up to RM50,000 is they misuse the information. This is a vague provision as it is not clear what misuse is. There are about 80 countries in the world which practice FOI of which Mexico and India have the best practices. Some of the benefits that can be gained from implementing the FOI are better information management and better decision making. It will also reduce and help prevent corruption. It will increase trust of the government. She gave examples of the SARS epidemic and the air quality index during the haze when the rakyat did not trust and believe the data given by the government. in the media
Rowena Yam from Gerakan's Political Bureau
Rowena concurred that the draft bill as it stands is very restrictive and covers almost everything. It is vague and can be subjected to different interpretations and open to abuse. It needs to be more comprehensive. Too much power is given to the information officer and this may lead to issues of independence and transparency of the officer. As such, the FOI can become a penalizing act if misused.

The forum was then opened to the floor for questions. To a question as to why the Penang draft is a replica of the Selangor Bill, YB Jagdeep explained that this is to expedite the process and to cut down time on writing out a totally new document.

To another question on whether the Selangor state government is really committed to allow freedom of information, Sonia said that she is hopeful that in the next Selangor state assembly sitting, the Selangor Bill will be cleaned up with the inputs and feedback to show their commitment.

For more information on the freedom of information and the Centre for Independent Journalism, visit this site

Find out why Penang's FOI Bill is "disgusting" in Aliran's report here.

Also check out this website: Article 19: Global campaign for Free expression.

Report by: Tan Seng Hai


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