Freedom of information law in need of reforms

tobyThailand’s 14-year freedom of information law will need to see changes for it to be more effective, said Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) executive director Toby Mendel at a forum in Bangkok recently.

Mendel, whose organization together with the Europe-based non-governmental organization Access Info Europe analyzed the freedom of information laws in 89 countries this year, said the Thai Official Information Act (OIA) could be better implemented if there were serious reforms in the legal framework.

Thailand is only one of the two countries in Southeast Asia with a freedom of information law, the other being Indonesia, which passed its Law on Public Information Disclosure in 2008. Thailand ranked 45th out of the 89, while the newcomer, Indonesia scored higher points for better a legal framework and was ranked 20th. The global rating, released in September this year, assessed the strength of the legal framework for guaranteeing the right to information in a given country. The methodology only measured the legal framework, and not the quality of implementation.

Mendel was speaking at the forum “14 years of Thailand’s Official Information Act: Time for a Change?”, co-organised by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Media Defence-Southeast Asia and the Thai Media Policy Centre.

Participants included representatives of Thai civil society, the media and local government officials, and representatives of the government and civil society of Selangor and Penang, which are two states in Malaysia that have passed the freedom of information legislation in the last year.

Thienchai Na Nakorn (second from the right)Thailand’s Information Commissioner Thienchai Na Nakorn said a revision of the law was long overdue and that public bodies must adopt a more proactive disclosure approach. He acknowledged that there was a culture of fear that prevailed in the civil service that discouraged officials from providing information to the public .

“As long as there are no clear guidelines to make information officers feel comfortable about disclosure there will be no reassurance for them that they won’t face consequences,” he said. He agreed that it was important to make the law more friendly and accessible for NGOs, civil society, and the media to access interesting and relevant information.

Ti Triratanaseangmanee of the Agricultural Conservation Network said as a member of the public using the law, he had experienced officials who were not aware of the act or were hostile to the NGOs.

“There are many obstacles, including being harassed, when we try to get information or to access contracts in big projects. We have had to go to court because the officials rejected our requests. It has been three years and we have not seem the contents of a contract related to a power plant project.

“The law has become a legal tool to delay and deny access. Information delayed is useless information,” he said.

World Bank economist and public sector specialist, Robert Boothe, said Thailand needed “a dedicated civil society that works together to build a coalition that demands this type of change.”

He said many people in Thailand remained in the dark on laws that guarantee them comprehensive access to official documents, and civil society represented only a small proportion of all FOI requests. Boothe called on key figures within the government to act as “champions for change” of the culture of denial in the Thai bureaucracy.

Dr. Pirongrong RamasootaThai Media Policy director Dr. Pirongrong Ramasoota of Chulalongkorn University agreed, saying that for Thai government agencies, secrecy was a rule and disclosure was an exemption. She also called for a general education programme, saying that like the general public, the media has insufficient knowledge of the law to make official requests.

Mendel presented a number of strategies for improvement, among them, improved procedures for requesting information to make them more timely, better training and protection for information officers, effective record-keeping systems for proactive disclosure, and enhancing the public interest test.

The forum participants agreed that an independent Information Board was necessary and that other reforms could include adding public interest provisions for information held by private bodies, and setting up a mechanism for protecting whistleblowers.

SEAPA is currently working on updating the status of access to information in Southeast Asia, and this forum is part of the ongoing activities to raise awareness and obtain feedback regarding the law and its practices.