Media, NGOs call govt to enact FOI law

Phnom Penh – Cambodian media and civil society have called on their government to enact a freedom of information law to allow better access to government-held information, a policy that Phnom Penh started years ago but made no progress recently.

They also plan to seek commitments from candidates of both the ruling and opposition party candidates, who are campaigning in the upcoming general election on 28 July.

“The legislation-making process should be participatory and inclusive, taking into account all comments from stakeholders,” Sinthay Neb, director of Advocacy and Policy Institute (API), a Cambodian NGO working to promote freedom of information (FOI) in the country, said quoting from a list of broad recommendations formulated by a national FOI conference here on 30-31 May.

“Better information disclosure practices will increase public information flow in the country,” Neb added.

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An, who delivered a closing remarks at the conference, said she would report the recommendations to Prime Minister Hun Sen, but without making any commitment to the participants.

Men, also the minister of national assembly, senate relations and inspection, claimed that 413 laws were passed during the last national assembly, in an attempt to demonstrate the “transparency” of the government.

She also said that, her ministry, as assigned by the government, released a policy framework on freedom of information in August 2007, which should have become the foundation of a draft law. However, the policy framework has never been approved by the Cambodian cabinet.

Organizing last week’s national conference was a renewed attempt by civil society and the media to urge the government to enact an FOI law in the country.

API’s Neb said his organization would meet with political parties this month in seeking their commitment to enact an FOI law once they win the 28 July elections.

Anette Novak, an FOI expert from Sweden, said at the conference that global momentum for freedom of information has been rising, with  majority of countries having enacted an FOI law only in the last ten years.

Currently, 93 countries in the world have a law that allows citizens to require information from their government, compared to only 12 countries having such a law in early 2000s.

She said in Sweden, which has one of the oldest FOI laws in the world, public authorities are required to provide information within 48 hours of a request.

Participants also heard experience from speakers from Thailand and Indonesia, the only two countries in the 10-member ASEAN which have a FOI law at a national level. Malaysia has enacted an FOI law at two states, but not at the federal level.

They have also learnt experience from the Philippines, where the civil society has been at the forefront of pushing for an access to information law in the country.

Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO representative in Cambodia, said: “Access to information is the cornerstone of good governance, citizen participation and transparency.”

She added: “Democracy depends on an informed citizenry that has access to quality information which allows them to participate in the public sphere.”

She said UNESCO stands ready to help Cambodian people in putting in place an FOI law in the country.

The national conference on access to information was co-sponsored by the Swedish Embassy and UNESCO office in Phnom Penh. The meeting was also co-hosted by API, Cambodian Center for Independent Media and UN Democracy Fund. It was attended by 200 representatives of civil society organizations, media representatives and government officials from 15 provinces.

[The author, Sinfah Tunsarawuth, is an independent media lawyer. Photo credit: CCIM]