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LETTER | The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) lauds the government’s announcement to enact the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and amend the Official Secrets Act 1972 accordingly.

It is commendable that the Special Cabinet Committee on National Governance chaired by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim noted that this is a positive step towards enabling the public the right to access public information held by government agencies.

This will improve public services and promote people’s participation in national policies.

A progressive right-to-information regime will promote a culture of transparency and contribute to enhancing the public’s trust in the governance process.

As the Prime Minister’s Office rightly pointed out, it would be crucial for “clear parameters and guidelines” to be created to enable public access to information effectively.

Malaysia can soon join Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines as countries in Asean with legislation on the Right to Information (RTI) or Freedom of Information, and 129 countries worldwide.

It would be useful to draw from good practices and learn from the experiences of other countries in the drafting of the RTI bill.

We can look at developing effective mechanisms and structures of implementation towards building an enabling environment for the public’s right to access information in Malaysia.

A RTI/FOI legislation has two primary functions:

  • Sets a clear framework on how government-held information is managed and proactively disclosed to the public, and setting the grounds for restriction of certain disclosures; and

  • Establishes a mechanism and service standards for the public to request access to government-held information.

This creates an obligation for government agencies to receive and respond to requests in a timely manner, mandates the allocation of organisational human resources and creates an appeals process where a formal, fair and independent process can be initiated to review the denial of information requests.

It is fundamental that the RTI law is in line with international human rights principles and standards, and be informed by the following:

1) Access to information is a right

  • Access is the rule and secrecy the exception;

  • In principle, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) should be repealed. Notwithstanding, any amendments to the OSA must ensure that it is aligned with the new RTI legislation. Please refer to CIJ’s proposed amendments to the OSA.

2) Any limitations or restrictions of access to information must be on specific grounds to be listed in the Act, and apply the international standards of legitimate aim, necessity and proportionality. Public interest shall prevail based on a harm test.

3) Facilitate proactive disclosures and guarantee meaningful and easy access, including for persons with disabilities and across all digital and geographical divides.

4) Establish an RTI Commission, which shall act as the independent oversight body mandated to review refusals/denial of disclosures, establish progressive practices and advance RTI in Malaysia.

5) Ensure adequate budget allocations to support the implementation of the Act.

In line with this, CIJ would like to urge the government to set up a steering committee, that comprises civil society and other experts, to facilitate the drafting of the RTI bill and the amendments to the OSA.

We hope the government, through the Legal Affairs Division under the Prime Minister’s Department, continues its engagement with multi-stakeholders in guaranteeing progressive and substantive new legislation.

Author is executive director of Centre for Independent Journalism.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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