Why freedom of information matters


IMAGINE this scene:

You live in a housing estate in the suburbs. The house that you bought is not cheap, but there is a reason why you spent your hard-earned money to purchase the property. You want to raise a family far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, safe enough that your children can walk in your housing area without fear. This is to be your dream home and you did not mind spending more for it.

One day, you find out that the government plans to build a highway near your housing area. It is a major development project that will take years to complete and cost billions of Ringgit. The project is claimed to be the answer to the traffic woes of the surrounding cities.

But this means that your housing area will be affected. Outsiders will come. Businesses will set up once the highway is completed. Your suburban enclave will no longer be the quiet haven it once was.

You are unhappy with the project. You look for answers from the government. How did they reach this decision? Did the government conduct a cost-benefit study on the project? Why was there no consultation with residents? When you ask for answers, you were met with a stony wall of silence and that they cannot give you answers as the project is classified under the Official Secrets Act. Even your elected representative cannot assist you.

Although this is hypothetical scenario, the reality is that this scene mirrors what happens in real life.

Often times, citizens are not able to obtain information because the access to this information is blocked by the government, be it the Federal or state governments. And most of the time, the information is classified under the Official Secrets Act, so the public will have no access to it.

The right to have access to information held by the government is essentially what is known as “freedom of information”.

Freedom of information is a component of freedom of speech and expression, which is a constitutionally guaranteed human right.

Freedom of information is vital to a democracy. It is only with access to information that a citizen may exercise his democratic rights in an informed manner. It ensures that the people know what the government is doing at all times.

It also encourages transparency. Government personnel, knowing that at any time citizens can know what they are doing, will be compelled to do things above board. This will also reduce the instances of corruption and mismanagement within government and will assist in efforts to combat graft.

Many countries in the world have recognised this right to information. They have enacted legislation to facilitate the obtaining of official information by members of the public. Usually there is a mechanism in which the public may make a request for information from the government, and this requests will be complied with within a set time limit. Unless it falls within very limited and very specific categories of information, the government cannot withhold the said information.

It is accepted that certain types of information cannot be freely obtained by the public. But the categories are small and very specific. Usually requests for information can be denied on grounds of national security or if it concerns foreign relations. Other than that, information should be made readily available and the public should have access to it.

 

In Malaysia, at the Federal level we do not have any freedom of information law. At the state level, Selangor and Penang have both enacted freedom of information enactments and although there are criticisms of the law and implementation of it, the existence of these enactments is a welcome step forward.

Nevertheless, we cannot truly have freedom of information as long as we still have the Official Secrets Act (OSA) in its current form.

The OSA severely restricts freedom of information as it allows the government to classify information as official secrets, without the need to justify the classification. Often times, the government will fall back on the OSA to prevent access to information.

The OSA in its current form no longer reflects the aspirations of the people of Malaysia. Malaysians want a more open and transparent and accountable government. We want to know what the government is doing. We are more and more aware of our democratic rights and laws such as the OSA prevent us from truly exercising these rights.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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Syahredzan Johan , opinion , freedom , information ,

   

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