Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Freedom of Information Enactment: : The Penang Experience

 Article written by Centre of Independent Journalism Malaysia
Moderator Himanshu Bhatt of the Sun (middle) and the speakers (from left)
ADUN and Pol-Sec for CM YB Ng Wei Aik, freelance journalist and Aliran Exco member Anil Netto, 
Gerakan Chief of Political Training Bureau Rowena Yam and Prof Dr Abu Bakar Munir of Universiti Malaya. Backdrop is a pictorial highlight of events in the Malaysian freedom of expression landscape in 2010; by Shieko Reto. 

Anil was superb

He said "Occupy" protests around the world show that citizens believe their governments are not acting in their best interests. When in power, politicians are faced with huge temptations. esp with more contact with the corporate sector. It takes a strong, ideal govt to resist such temptations; not many in the world can do this. Most compromise and end up cutting deals all over the place with corporations. 

Video Part2 by CJ. Malaysia

Why is a Freedom of Information law good? Law Prof Abu Bakar Munir

it creates a better informed public, improves quality of government practice and decision-making process. Knowledge is power and the essence of public participation. It promotes a more transparent govt. This benefits not just the rakyat but also the govt. 

UK info commissioner said principles under FOI law are a powerful reminder that govt serve the people and not the other way round! 

Prof commended S'gor FOI Enactment for including entities owned and fully controlled by state to fall under the law, such as PKNS and "perhaps local government". But bad provision: it's an offence to use document for purposes other than the one stated in application form. 

Rowena Yam from Gerakan: 

Her party was the first to point out weaknesses of Penang FOI draft bill, and was labelled "bising", "bodoh" by the state government, who missed the point that Gerakan welcomed the FOI bill and want to give feedback to make it effective. They identified 10 clauses that are against the FOI spirit. Thanks to pressure created when NGOs stepped in, there's now an amended draft, with substantial clauses added. 

Rowena was disappointed that the rule of separation of power was not observed in the appointments of info officers, chair, deputy chair and members of the Appeals Board. 

Rowena pointed out that when Penang state govt opened up SPICE agreement, photocopying was not allowed, and viewing was only for 2 days, during work hours, which means big groups have to come at the same time. She raised other transparency concerns regarding the Bukit Jambul Country Club, wifi project and state govt convention centre. 

Video Part1 by CJ. Malaysia

YB Ng Wei Aik: The idea for Penang FOI Enactment came from DAP's manifesto for Penang. 

He raised it after GE 2008. Problems they've faced so far: opposition from state legal adviser; bound by OSA, otherwise create constitutional crisis for Penang. But State Legal Adviser agreed to table a draft bill that's adapted from the Selangor draft bill. If not for her hindrance, Penang would have been the 1st Malaysian state to enact an FOI law. The bill has gone through public hearings by a Select Committee (of the 3 UMNO assembly reps in the committee, only 1 participated). 

Replying to Rowena's point about the separation of power, he said this has been addressed. Appointment and removal of Appeals Board members are by the state govt BUT subject to approval by the state legislative assembly. A first for Malaysia that this check and balance happens. If members are removed, the amended draft says the state must give reason. Chair must be qualified, eg former judge. Info officer is appointed among civil servants because they have to deal with documents that are in custody of administration, so must know where it is to retrieve. 

Major milestone: if you disclose information in document out of context it is asked for in the application, you will not be prosecuted if it's done in good faith. However, he said, FOI doesn’t mean everything is public document. Minutes of exco is confidential; need to declassify before disclosure. 

More from Anil Netto (he's a gem!): 

There was lack of info all those years (when Gerakan ruled state). We shouldn't ignore the land reclamation project - no accountability, lack of info. The PGCC deal was cut with the corporate sector - which politician initiated it? Don’t know (formally) to this day. Batu Kawan land, close to the site of Penang's 2nd bridge. Is that a coincidence? Given to obscure company. Land reclamation deals involving prime land and waterfront view are given to companies at low price, but at tremendous cost to Penangites. This is where the FOI law is important. 

The Auditor-General's report seems similar every year. How much is lost due to "leakage" in the national budget? Why does this happen? Lack of info for the public. The FOI law gives outlet for info to reach the public. With OSA, Sedition Act, PPPA, even when journalists have info, they are forced to self-censor + don’t publish. We need more diosclosure on the Net. FOI laws in Selangor and Penang are crucial steps forward and should be welcomed. 

Aliran commented on the Bill's weaknesses. When told Penang used the Selangor model, they felt there was something wrong there. Of so many countries with many best practices to choose from, why follow Selangor draft? 

Even with FOI, eg in the US, once documents are declassified, certain sections are blacked out; govts still want to hide info from the public! We have to struggle to get the law, we have to do so for our right to information that the FOI law provides. But it might eventually fall short. It must be user-friendly, so that the person on the street would be able to follow procedures to apply for info. Else, it will only be used by a handful of journalists and not widely. 

FOI cannot operate with OSA curtailing its power. OSA needs to be repealed. 

On the SPICE project, why do people get info only after the deal signed? Even the MPPP councillors only find out after that; how is this possible? It falls under MPPP! FOI law will make it difficult to hide info. Regarding the Kg Buah Pala issue, the people would be able to see extracts of previous minutes. He would like to see the minutes of previous land transactions that were finalised. What about the Penang island local plan? When was it completed? Why are there many projects with 87 units per acre? How do they get appoved? What's the process how it’s decided? Such info should be transparent, made accountable to the public.

Additional note by Sembang:

Prof Abu Bakar Munir suggested that the draft FOI Bill be posted online. YB Ng Wei Aik agreed and said that by Monday 31st October 2011 the draft FOI Bill will be available online.


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