By Sean Buchanan
LONDON (IDN) – Freedom of information is not only a human right, but also an essential tool to engage and empower citizens to demand accountability from governments and fight corruption.
Worldwide, around 120 countries have a right to information (RTI) act, indicating that most countries consider it important to spell out in detail how this right is exercised and to set obligations for public authorities to promote, protect and implement it in practice.
As the UN Human Rights Committee has highlighted, “freedom of expression is a necessary condition for the realisation of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, essential for the promotion and protection of human rights. […] A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression … It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society.”
The right to information has also been a key element of sustainable development since the 1992 Rio Declaration. In the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), access to information held by public bodies has been recognised as a necessary enabling mechanism for public engagement across the goals and specifically incorporated into Goal 16 as well as implicitly as into many other goals and targets.
After the end of the Cold War, this global norm spread to the Asia-Pacific region and the majority of countries in the region adopted RTI laws. However, the quality of laws varies across countries, as does implementation and compliance with regulations. A well-formulated law does not necessarily mean that the right to information is widely known and upheld.
Many of the laws do not meet international standards, and are not properly implemented and promoted. Even strong laws can be ineffective if the officials providing information are undertrained, too few or supporting a culture of secrecy. Complicated bureaucracy can put information out of reach for citizens, who are often unaware that they can even request it. At the same time, many RTI laws do not lead to more informed populations who can call corrupt politicians and officials to account.
To mark International Right to Know Day on September 28, Transparency International – a global movement with the vision of a world in which government, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption – launched a report on eleven Asia-Pacific countries and called on their governments to make right to information a priority.
The decision to celebrate and promote September 28 as International Right to Know Day was taken on the last day of a Freedom of Information litigation conference held in September 2002 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Representatives of freedom of information organisations from 15 countries took part – Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, India, Latvia, Macedonia, Mexico, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, and the United States – as well as representatives of international organisations active in the freedom of information field.
The Transparency International report covered Bangladesh, Cambodia, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu and Vietnam.
According to Transparency International, all the countries need to strengthen their RTI systems. While eight have RTI laws, six have many broad or controversial exceptions. Exceptions let governments withhold information on certain topics for reasons like security, but they can be misused to keep incriminating information secret.
Tests to balance the public interest of disclosing or withholding information are missing from most laws. Without these tests, officials can claim that they are protecting the public by withholding information when they are really acting against public interests.
Delia Ferreira Rubio, chair of Transparency International, said: “Several of the countries assessed in this report have recently been rocked by corruption scandals involving senior officials and political leaders. Most continue to score poorly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. A well-functioning right to information system is critical for exposing and deterring abuses of power, and for supporting the fight against corruption.”
Many of the countries in the report have bureaucracy that discourages people who seek information. Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal and Vietnam ask information seekers to provide their name and address. Public officials also frequently ask for the reason information is being requested. This can be intimidating – potentially discouraging people from exercising their right to information – and can lead to requests being denied. It also goes against international standards.
In several countries, public officials and judges are not fully trained to understand and comply with RTI legislation, leaving information buried under disorganisation and poor judgments. At the same time, Mongolian, Nepalese and Pakistani citizens are not given enough information on how to make requests, complaints and appeals when seeking facts and data.
Transparency International has urged citizens to find out about the laws in their country and exercise their right to information and, “in countries where laws do not yet exist, governments must act quickly to grant their citizens this important human right”, said Ferreira Rubio.
Improvements in RTI systems only make a difference if people can freely use the information they obtain, including sharing it publicly. Half of the countries in the report were reported as having severe restrictions on freedom of expression and media, with citizens, civil society organisations and journalists who share certain information on public platforms frequently facing intimidation through repressive laws, verbal threats or physical attacks.
The report noted that existing legislation in some of the countries covered imposes unacceptably broad limits on freedom of expression, both online and offline. In Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Maldives, criminal defamation legislation serves this purpose.
Telecommunications laws and anti-terrorism laws are also said to be widely used to suppress freedom of expression and of the media. In Bangladesh, the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2009 and the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Act 2012 serve to limit freedom of expression.
A similar effect is observed in Cambodia as a result of the Telecommunications Law 2015, in Mongolia due to the Violations Law 2017 and in Pakistan as a consequence of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2016 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016.
In Pakistan, the controversial Pakistan Electronic Crime Bill (PECB) became law in September 2017. Its provisions contain vague language that grant authorities sweeping powers to censor online content in the name of preserving national security. The law also provides for prison sentences of up to three years for disseminating information with “dishonest” intent or which is deemed to harm an individual’s reputation.
The Press Law 2016 in Vietnam contains a number of vaguely worded provisions, which imply excessive control by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) over the press and restrict the role of the press and journalists in combating corruption. Article 4(2)(b) prescribes as one of the responsibilities of the press to “propagandise and disseminate, and contribute to the formulation and protection of, the line and policies of the Party, policies and laws of the State, achievements of the country and the world according to the guiding principles and purposes of press agencies.”
New legislative proposals or recently adopted laws in several of the countries covered by the report are also said to threaten undermining freedom of expression in the region. The proposed Digital Security Act 2018 in Bangladesh threatens further restrictions, out of step with international standards. In Pakistan, the “Journalists’ Welfare and Protection Bill” requires media organisations to obtain approval from the government “before deputing a journalist for duty in a sensitive area, which can be potentially harmful to the journalist”. The draft bill gives government the authority to ban media organisations for up to three months and impose fines.
In Vietnam, the new Cyber Security Law was approved by Vietnam’s National Assembly in June 2018 and will become effective in January 2019. Similar to the above legislation , the Cyber Security Law uses vague language in many of its provisions, which have caused great concern among citizens and the international community. Public concern focuses on the exclusive power of government in controlling information on the Internet (especially social networks), violations of citizen privacy and limits on the freedom of speech.
It also grants the Cyber Security Force unlimited power to request access to private information systems or require Internet-based service providers to provide users’ personal information. More importantly, these providers are required to remove any information posted by users when state agencies determine this content to be directed against the party and state.
This, said Transparency International, is particularly concerning in a context in which mainstream media outlets are strictly controlled by the state, as social media networks are often one of the only viable alternative channels for citizens and activists to tackle corruption. Once they become effective, these new regulations could discourage people, especially whistleblowers, from proactively participating in anti-corruption efforts.
In Cambodia, the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications issued an inter-ministerial prakas (notification) on website and social media control on 28 May 2018. The prakas orders the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to “block or close” websites and social media pages containing content “considered as incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination and wilfully creating turmoil leading to undermining national security, public interest and social order”.
These catchall definitions of “illegal” content, noted Transparency International, are a clear case of government over-reach and censorship – far beyond what can be justified as necessary to maintain public order and national security. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 October 2018]
Photo credit: Transparency International
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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