An independent online media organization is suing the army for details on a controversial project to test access to information laws in Thailand.
ThaiPublica, a news outlet known for investigative reporting, filed a case on 9 September 2016 against the Royal Thai Army (RTA) at the Administrative Court asking for the disclosure of the base price of the Rajabhakti Park Construction Project.
The Army’s 2015 project built gigantic monuments of seven Thai kings at a new royal park in Prachuab Khirikhan province. During its construction, students and activists raised irregularities in connection with the project.
Activists, who protested the alleged corruption, were charged for violating Thai junta restrictions against public gatherings of more that five persons, while two others were arrested for Facebook posts on the the controversy. These allegations came amidst a military junta campaign against corrupt politicians, mostly from the previous government.
An internal investigation and one by the the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) both concluded that the project was free of corruption and the bidding process was transparent. The People’s Network Against Corruption secretary-general Veera Somkwamkid filed the case before NACC in December 2015.
Access to information in practice
ThaiPublica proceeded with the court case after exhausting the process provided under Article 11 of the Official Information Act (OIA), B.E. 2540 (1997) which states that the agency shall provide official information within a reasonable period of time.
Despite a ruling of the Information Disclosure Tribunal (IDT) favoring the request of ThaiPublica to release project details, the army said the information they are looking for is not available. In the lawsuit, the media organization countered that the RTA should give a reason why the information, a normal requirement for public projects, is “non-existent.” They also asked the Army to explain the procedure that had been used to find the base price for determining the winning contracts.
This is the first case on record that a local media organization used judicial procedure to pressure a public institution to reveal such information.
Boonlarp Poosuwan, executive editor of ThaiPublica, told SEAPA that the news outlet did not intend to target this project. However, she said that it is necessary (for public interest) to clarify and be transparent in implementing government projects. Under the project, a foundation was set up to accept donations from the public.
“This information would not be difficult to reveal and donors should know how their donations were spent. This should be a case study,” said Boonlarp.
“It is (ThaiPublica’s) goal that public information needs to be disclosed. This should be normal. Especially when there is a corruption scandal, the facts must be clarified. And people should understand that there is a mechanism for transparency, which is the Official Information Act,” she added.
Thailand is the first Southeast Asian country to pass this law in 1997. But journalists rarely use it in their work. The law does not guarantee if, when, and what kind of information they will get in using the law’s mechanisms. Furthermore, the lengthy process of request often works against the urgency of getting the story out in time.
Failing to respond
Boonlarp admitted that the public and journalists find it difficult to access government-held records despite the availability of mechanisms.
Using the Rajabhakti case as an example, ThaiPublica said they filed their request to the Ministry of Defence to reveal the findings of their investigations and details about the sub-contractors.
ThaiPublica submitted the request near the end of 2015 but only received a reply eight months later. In its response, the Ministry of Defence refused to disclose the information reasoning that the news agency submitted the request to the wrong department.
“A major problem in implementing the Official Information Act is that government agencies themselves do not know their protocols,” said Boonlarp. She explained that sometimes they themselves had to explain to civil servants what the OIA is or government agencies give them a run around.
“When we go to a government office, a government official tells us to ask for the information from the Public Relations Department, others tell us to go to the library. The government organization itself does not know which department is responsible for providing information,” she added.
The unpreparedness of government agencies and officials to handle OIA requests costs people and journalists time, patience, and money.
In another case, ThaiPublica requested lottery quotas from the Government Lottery Office (GLO). The GLO refused to grant the request saying it includes personal data. The ThaiPublica team had to explain that according to the OIA all information related to government bidding has to be made publicly available.
The news agency appealed to the IDT, which ruled that the information must be disclosed. But when ThaiPublica received the information, the data were in the form of scanned pictures and files. The data were available, but not immediately usable so the journalists ended up having to retype the information themselves.
When there was a need to follow up information, ThaiPublica journalists had to read the data in the GLO office or pay to make copies. The GLO allowed them access to hard copies of the documents. “We asked, do you have a soft file? They said no, because no one has ever asked for one,” said the editor.
According to Boonlarp, the Thai media are practicing austerity policies. “Recently, many organizations had to lay off staff. So it is hard to expect a media organization, especially a daily news outlet, to spare a reporter to do an investigative story,” she said.
Boonlarp believes that in-depth reporting that an organization like ThaiPublica, which is non-profit and operates with only six staff members, provides is still needed. She shared that access to information helps provide people with opportunities to better understand what’s happening around them and thus reduces knowledge gaps in society. “Newsworthy data can illustrate a phenomenon in a society,” she said.
Chronology of ThaiPublica’s two OIA information requests: