CGG welcomes bill but worried about content

CGG expresses concern over FOI Bill
by Meena L. Ramadas (theSun)

PETALING JAYA (July 22, 2010):
The Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) has expressed concern over the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill tabled in the Selangor State Legislative Assembly recently, saying it does not guarantee the public‘s right to seek and obtain information.

CGG Taskforce on the FOI Legislation Gayathry Venkiteswaran said they do not want this version of the law to be passed.

“It really needs to be strengthened in terms of its processes, rights framework, the appeals board — all of which are the fundamental principles of the FOI law,” she said.

She said the problematic areas of the bill are:

> Section 5(1), which stipulates that “any person may be given access to information made by every department”.

The CGG says this provision does not entrench the right of the individual to seek and obtain information;

> Wide exemptions, including limitations in reference to the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

The CGG says the bill only stipulates access to information kept by state agencies and departments and does not specify private companies or agencies that may carry out functions for public interests;

> The need for the public to justify reasons to request for information which is to be weighed by an information officer and the lack of specificity regarding costs to obtain the information. The information officer cannot be held accountable for not responding to requests within the stipulated time under Section 7 and such non-communication should be assumed as rejection of application;

> The penalties incurred if the information is used for other reasons than applied for or if false information is filled in the form; and,

> Lack of clear independence of the Appeal Board as its members are appointed by the state. The chairman also has the final say to approve or reject the appeals.

Gayathry said CGG welcomes the setting up of the select committee, to be chaired by Hulu Klang assemblyman Saari Singib, which the coalition hopes to engage with on the bill.

“We have sent him a letter to inform him that CGG would like to meet up with the select committee to discuss the process of what is going to happen in the select committee and our concerns with the law,” she said.

“We really hope they will be open to our recommendations and take our concerns seriously.”

When contacted, state executive councillor Elizabeth Wong denied CGG’s claim that the bill is a watered-down version of an FOI legislation.

Wong said it is futile for a state law to “stand alone” while contravening the federal laws as it would result in more disadvantages for the public.

However, she said, the process to enact the FOI law in the state is ongoing and the select committee will be engaging with the public, NGOs and experts to refine and enhance the bill.

“We are very open to suggestions, recommendations and ideas regarding the bill and I appreciate CGG’s comments,” she said.

The FOI bill was tabled in the state assembly last week and it has now been passed to the select committee to further refine the bill.

Saari said the committee will meet at the end of the month and is focusing on garnering opinion from specialised groups, including NGOs, academicians, state and federal agencies, to produce a revised version of the legislation.

Watered-down freedom

Fri, 23 Jul 2010 06:36
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By Ken Vin Lek (Free Malaysia Today)

PETALING JAYA: Selangor is the first state to table the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill, but it has been “severely” watered down.

“It doesn’t truly reflect the spirit of the law,” says Gayathry Venkiteswaran, the head of the task force set up under the umbrella of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG), a non-governmental organisation.

When Selangor mooted the FOI proposal, it was greeted with much enthusiasm. It was seen as a symbol of a new open and transparent government. The bill was tabled at the Selangor State Legislative Assembly on July 14 by Elizabeth Wong, the executive councillor in charge of consumer affairs, tourism and environment.

Speaking to reporters at the Petaling Jaya City Council recently, Gayathry said the watered-down version has serious weaknesses.

“We note with concern that the bill has serious weaknesses that could jeopardise the spirit of the legislation. We call for a scrutiny of the law and propose that it be strengthened to reflect the true intent of any good FOI legislation,” she said.

Open to potential abuse

Gayathry said the FOI bill had gone against its principles – ensuring maximum disclosure of information, routine publication of information, and the need for an independent body to monitor it.

“The bill that was tabled proposes that every individual will have the ‘opportunity’ to access public information but does not entrench the right of the individual to seek and obtain information.

“The bill is still premised on the idea that the state government owns the information and only allows people access to it instead of holding the information on behalf of the people, who have a right to access it,” she said.

She noted that there are several provisions in the bill which could potentially be abused to prevent the exercise of right to access information.

“One of the sections requires the person seeking information to ‘state the reason and purpose’ of his application. Now this means that he could be disqualified (from seeking information) based on the judgment of the appointed information officer.”

A-G an impediment

When asked why the FOI did not live up to the original draft submitted by the CGG to Wong, Gayathry said: “It is very clear that all parties, NGOs and the state government wanted the ideal proposal tabled. However, I dare say that the state legal advisers and the Attorney-General (A-G) have been an impediment in the tabling of the bill.”

“The state legal advisers should be responsible to the state and not to the A-G’s Chambers. This is our main concern.”

(The CGG draft was submitted in 2009 under the aegis of the task force.)

On whether the FOI contradicted the Federal Constitution, Gayathry said there are sufficient provisions to prove that the FOI is constitutional.

“ We don’t agree that based on federal law, this bill is unconstitutional as there are several clauses (73 ,74 and 77) which do support it. The argument used by the legislators who opposed this bill is based on the fact that it is against the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

“What we’re talking about here is information of public interest, which should be readily available except in certain circumstances that affect national security,” Gayathry added.

Gayathry, however, praised the tabling of the FOI Bill, describing it as a step in the right direction.

“The approach radically shifts the obligations to the state to make information available to the public and to not have unlimited powers to decide what information people can have access to as is practised under the OSA,” she said.

“We are aware of the challenges faced by the state excos in tabling this bill, but at the same time, we would like to congratulate them for pushing ahead with it…”

A great thing

Meanwhile, Petaling Jaya local councillor, Derek Fernandes, a lawyer by profession, voiced his support for the bill.

“The bill is really a great thing but it needs to be worked out properly. The Selangor government should be applauded for showing political will in tabling it. Hopefully, this will be followed by other states.”

“It now makes the federal government look bad as it had vehemently opposed the FOI Bill. This goes to show how much it fears an open and transparent government,” Fernandes added.

The Selangor government has set up a select committee chaired by Hulu Kelang state assemblyman, Saari Sungib, which will undertake research and public consultation on the proposed bill.

The panel will then table its findings and recommendations to the State Legislative Assembly for a third reading planned for April 2011.

The final bill will be the result of the combined efforts of the executive and legislative branches of the government and the people of Selangor.

So far, only 80 countries have enacted FOI laws.

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Championing for citizen's right to information in Malaysia

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