Freedom of Information and Southeast Asia – Status Quo and Deficiencies

Opinion23.05.2017
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Access to information is one of the keys to a functioning democracy. Giving citizens the legal and practical means to access public documents enables them to fully participate in public life, thereby being able hold their governments publicly accountable. This helps, for example, to prevent corruption; it promotes government efficiency; it encourages investment; and, more broadly speaking, it gives democratically elected governments legitimacy because it ultimately helps voters to decide whether a government has performed well and therefore deserves re-election or whether it should be thrown out because of mismanagement.

Looking at the legal and practical frameworks dealing with freedom of information in Southeast Asia, it becomes obvious that countries within this region still have to catch up when compared to other parts of the globe. 

In Southeast Asia, the legal and practical implementation of freedom of (and right to) information is still somewhat deficient. Until now only two Southeast Asian nations, Indonesia and Thailand, have dedicated FOI laws in place. (Vietnam will follow suit in 2018). In the Philippines an executive order went into force in August 2016 and guarantees the access to information, records, and documents to official government transactions as well as research data. However, this decree covers only government agencies under the executive branch which has led to calls from civil society for Congress to take one step further and pass an all-embracing FOI law.

Other Southeast Asian countries have witnessed first steps aimed at ensuring freedom and access to information, but sometimes with limited success: In Malaysia, for example, a freedom of information law was passed in the state of Selangor.  But its impact has been limited by restrictive national laws such as the Official Secrets Act or the Internal Security Act. In practice this means that the government can simply declare information related to an inquiry a state secret. This makes the (theoretically granted) freedom of information a rather hollow right.

But even in countries where clear freedom of information laws are in place, they sometimes suffer from deficiencies. A case in point is Thailand: Its Official Information Act (OIA) established the Official Information Commission, a supervisory and advisory body in charge of implementing the law. However, the commission is not an entirely independent body. Its head is a cabinet minister who is usually a minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office which also oversees the director of the commission’s secretariat. This means that the director and all members of the director’s staff are reporting to the Prime Minister’s Office, raising questions as to the functional independence of the Information Commission. Furthermore, the OIA doesn’t stipulate fixed timeframes within which state agencies have to respond to information requests, not does it set penalties for non-compliance on the part of officials or government agencies that do not make available information required to be made available under the law.  It is therefore not surprising that the Official Information Act has not been used very much so far..

In theory, freedom of information is recognized in most Southeast Asian nations as a vital contributor to the freedoms of expression and speech by empowering citizens to exercise their democratic rights in an informed manner, and to create more incentives for good governance in the bureaucracy. But unfortunately actual implementation of the right to information has not yet realized its full potential.  In order to promote government transparency and reduce opportunities for corruption and mismanagement Southeast Asian governments should give this subject matter a higher priority. Especially young democracies such as Myanmar which is in the process of a democratic transition, would benefit from putting such laws and mechanisms in place as these would help ensure that their transition process is a sustainable one.