Time to enact the Freedom of Information Act

ON Jan 17 of this year, the United States Central Intelligence Agency released about 12 million pages of declassified documents from its archive.

The documents include information about UFO sightings, famous psychic Uri Geller and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The decision to release this information, which was previously only accessible at the National Archives in Maryland, was the result of efforts by freedom of information advocates and a suit against the CIA.

For Malaysians, the released docu­ments contained CIA report on the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance scandal in the 1980s which drew links to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

This nine-page report has provided ammunition to his opponents to attack the former prime minister turned Opposition leader.

Ironically, if similar efforts by freedom of information advocates were to be done here, the efforts would probably hit a brick wall.

Freedom of information, a right which has now been recognised by many countries as part and parcel of the right to freedom of speech and expression, has not been recognised in this country.

Activist Haris Ibrahim brought a suit in 2015 against the Elections Commission (EC) for a declaration, amongst others, that voters had the right to all information relating to changes made to parliamentary and state constituencies.

The basis of his action was, amongst others, that the right to information is derived from freedom of speech and expression.

Haris wanted to compel the EC to furnish details of all the constituencies for re-delineation in its website, as was done in India.

He claimed that he had to go into each constituency to check the details.

The suit was dismissed by the High Court.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision of the High Court in January this year and held that, unlike in India, Malaysia does not have specific freedom of information legislation.

In countries which do have such legislation, members of the public may make a request to government departments or public bodies for certain information and these departments or bodies have the obligation to furnish the information.

Certain information that relates to national security or foreign relations may be exempted, but as a whole, information is freely available upon request.

Malaysia does not have freedom of information legislation at the federal level.

We do have freedom of information enactments in Penang and Selangor, but the effectiveness of these enactments at the state level is limited, especially when at the fe­deral level we still have laws such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

The OSA is contrary to everything that a freedom of information legislation should stand for.

With the OSA, any information can be classified as official secrets, regardless of whether such classification can be justified or otherwise.

So the governments of Penang and Selangor can fall back on the OSA to prevent disclosure of certain information.

The CIA papers were declassified previously under an Executive Order which require the declassification of non-exempt historically valuable records 25 years or older.

If those papers were in Malaysia, the OSA would apply and they would remain “official secrets” for an indefinite period.

It is time that we enact a Freedom of Information Act and abolish the OSA.

This will ensure governments, whether at the federal or state level, will be open and transparent in whatever they do.

Freedom of information will also promote accountability and help to minimise instances of corruption.

A government that has nothing to hide should not be afraid of scrutiny by the public.

Syahredzan Johan is a partner of a legal firm in Kuala Lumpur with an interest in the laws that shape our country. He can be reached at syahredzan.johan@gmail.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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