Comment: The right to information - what it is, and why we need it

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 15 Dec 2019

THE right to information underlies the notion of democracy, because it makes it possible for all people to make informed decisions about what government does, how government works and whether government is working for you.

That’s all well and good, but it can sometimes be hard to see the benefits in every day life, yet there is hardly an aspect of life that isn’t touched by data and information. And if data and information are important, so is the right to information.

What does a right to information entail? It means that you can go into a government department and find out what they know, about almost anything, from the quality of the water you drink to the finances of your local primary school, from the amount of pesticides in food to the reason the local council decided to put fake palm trees in. If the government knows, then you get to know.

Of course, there is information that the government has that you really shouldn’t know. The location of our troops in wartime, for example. Or about on ongoing investigation into corruption in the highest echelons of government. Or your neighour’s medical records. These all fall under exemptions. The basic idea is that while most of the information government holds should be accessible to everyone (yes, even that annoying neighbour I just mentioned), there are legitimate, reasonable reasons for government to keep a few secrets. Not too many, just some. The problem with exemptions is when they are too wide. For example, the Malaysian government in the past has declared things which affect business – such as the impact of publishing the air pollution index (API) on tourism – as being matters of national security. Under a well-written right to information law, there would be a referee (coming to that!) who would call it out. So we need to have exemptions that are narrowly defined, so that only information that is clearly, say, a threat to national security in terms of people being harmed or killed would be kept secret.

But even keeping the exemptions narrow isn’t always enough. Let’s take an infamous real-world example: The price that the army pays for instant noodles. Soldiers consume a lot of instant noodles, apparently. In the early 1990s, it became known that the army was paying about ten times the shop-price per packet of instant noodles. Is this information that should be made public? Clearly there are compelling reasons – someone is making a killing, nobody is being killed – for making that information public.

Ah, you might say, but knowing that there is corruption or incompetence in the army might make people lose faith in our armed forces.

Good point, says I. What we are doing here is establishing the first stage of the three-stage test: Does the information requested fall under the exemption “national security”, and with that remark you have convinced me that, yes, the price the army pays for instant noodles is a matter of national security.

But does it actually do harm to national security? You might have some difficulty with that, and then grin and say, “Aha, yes if we’re at war, it could definitely harm national security, soldiers’ morale would fall, and the country would no longer be safe!”

So our real life example turns hyptothetical, but yes, I can grant you that it might be the case that if we were in war, there is a real importance to national security attached to the morale of the soldiers.

But it still doesn’t mean that this widespread corruption (or incompetence) would not come to light, because there is a third part to the test: Is there an over-riding public interest? At which point, it’s hard to not imagine you, or at least the fictional protagonist of this story, umming and ah-ing and eventually agreeing that even, if not especially, in wartime, there is an over-riding public interest in knowing whether the army is paying too much for food supplies. And the information is released to the public.

These two provisions, the broad right to information and narrow, clearly defined exemptions to that right, delineated by the three-stage test, these are the heart of a right to information law. Yet, they are not enough to guarantee that everyone has equal access to that right, so there is a third principle that needs to be enshrined in the law: Ease of access.

If the government holds information, especially if it has generated that information, that information was gathered or filed or held using taxpayer money. So in a meaningful way, that information is something that we the public have already paid for. To access it, we shouldn’t be paying once more for that information. So, for example, if the government has commissioned a report into, say, the development of water resources across the peninsula and East Malaysia, we should be able to access the report, for free. We should also be able to copy the report, for just the cost of reproduction, or for those who can’t afford that, the fees should be waived completely: Human rights, such as access to information, need to be available to all, not just those who can afford it.

And once we have the report, we should be able to use it for whatever nefarious purposes we like: We could use it as a door stop, we could use it to improve our competitiveness in business, we could use it to expose corruption. How we use our information isn’t really the prerogative of government. It’s up to us.

And ease of access also means we should, within reason, be able to dictate how we get the information, whether on a CD or printed paper, for example.

For all this to work, all this needs to be administered by an independent oversight body, chosen by an open process and responsible to Parliament. The body should have clearly defined powers to inspect records, to decide whether a decision to keep is a secret is justified through the three-part test, to help set standards of record-keeping (including if and when documents, such as reports by an auditor-general, can be destroyed), and act as a low-cost appeals body for everything from fees being too high, decisions being too tardy or information being withheld.

And why does any of this matter to you? Because you breathe air that is monitored by the government, and you have the right to know whether it is safe; because your children go to a public school and you want to know what they are being taught and why; because you want the pot-hole on your road fixed and to understand why it has taken 16 years to fill; because you understand the importance of information to making decisions about your life, and the lives of those you live.

Sonia Randhawa is a director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, which has been advocating for right to information legislation since 2004. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.

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