September 28 is International Day for Universal Access to Information, commonly known as Access to Information Day. 2016 was the first year that marked Access to Information Day, after resolution (38 C/70) was adopted by UNESCO on November 17, 2015.
This year, the IFJ is celebrating Access to Information Day by looking at the challenges journalists and media workers across the Asia Pacific face in accessing information.
Australia - The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA)
The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA – Australia) remains concerned at attempts to undermine freedom of information in Australia. As highlighted in MEAA’s annual report on the state of press freedom in Australia, The Chilling Effect (www.pressfreedom.org.au), there have been attempts by government to roll-back freedom of information access to government records. There continues to be mixed results for freedom of information applications which are beset by lengthy delays, high user charges, the overuse of exemptions and even court action to deny releasing information. Senior public servants have called for amendments to the Freedom of Information Act so that their written deliberative advice and opinion can be locked-up. And the current Government has used the militarisation of Customs and Immigration to restrict the flow of information about asylum seekers “on water” and threatened whistleblowers working at offshore asylum seeker detention centres through powers in the Border Force Act.
There have been some positives. It is encouraging that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has been restored, albeit with a sharp decline in funding and resources. The Turnbull Government remains committed to the international Open Government Partnership with the aim of developing “information management and access laws fit for the 21st century”. Whistleblower protections are also likely to be improved following a parliamentary inquiry, with the aim of bringing legislation for the private sector in line with the Public Interest Disclosure Act.
But for every advance in freedom of information, there are those that would seek to chip away at that progress. What is needed is resolute determination by Australian governments at every level to support the principles of open and transparent government and access to information.
Hong Kong - Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA)
There is no progress on Access to Information bill in Hong Kong.
HKJA has been targeting at senior government officials in its campaign for access to information law. At our election forum early this year, all three candidates running for the HKSAR Chief Executive were asked by the Association to commit to the introduction of the law in Hong Kong. Among them is Carrie Lam who won the job. Lam, however, has remained non-committal to that ever since her victory.
Since the passing of the Right to Information Act in 2005, about 4 million to 6 million requests for information are filed every year, as per records of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI). However, exercising this right is a risky business. According to the NCPRI, since the law came into force, at least 69 people who were murdered after they filed RTI requests; 130 have been victims of assault and 170 others have reported being harassed. These figures are likely to be a conservative estimate, compiled from news stories, as authorities do not separately record deaths linked to right to information.
In a recent case, Mukesh Dubey, 42, a right to information (RTI) activist who used the access to information to expose corruption in panchayats (local self-government bodies) was found dead with stab injuries all over his body in Madhya Pradesh's Morena district on September 26, 2017. Dubey had filed RTI applications to uncover misuse of funds allocated for development projects. RTI activists have often alleged apathetic attitude of the state government and constant threats from vested interests. In 2011, rights activist Shahla Masood 38, was murdered in broad daylight outside her Bhopal home when she was on her way to participate in the India Against Corruption campaign launched by noted social activist Anna Hazare.
With the Government of India proposing a controversial amendment to Rule 12 allowing withdrawal of an application in case of the applicant’s death, the job of those who file RTIs will become more risky.
Nepal - Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ)
After the Right to Information Act came into existence in 2007, there has not been any major notable change in the recent years in the Act. There still remains the practice of hiding information within different organizations, especially the government agencies, but there has not been any major case, where the court had to intervene in the last few years. There were a few cases that went to the court but a long back. Hence, there are no notable change in RTI situation in Nepal.
At the policy level the constitution guarantees Right to Information, we have RTI Act and regulation in place. But the major challenge remains at practice and understanding at the people's level, where most of the people are unaware of its use.
The other challenge is that many new laws are being drafted now in Nepal. Hence, we need to be very cautious about how these laws address the RTI and need to ensure that they are not against the basic principle of constitution. FNJ is planning to work on this aspect soon.
New Zealand - E Tu
New Zealand’s Official Information Act continues to work reasonably well. As a result much more government information is automatically put up on departmental websites so it is readily available without having to go through the process of applying for it.
Unfortunately we still have a problem when it comes to more politically sensitive material. Often that gets withheld or its release is delayed. The most recent case concerns a deal the Government did with a Saudi businessman to set up a sheep farm in Saudi Arabia. Cost about $11 million. The Government claimed it did it because it had legal advice the man might have sued the Government for earlier banning live sheep exports to Saudi Arabia.
Two years later a reporter who asked for the advice finally got a response, after months and months of delay. There was never any legal advice about the businessman potentially suing the Government. But by the time it became public the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, who had repeatedly made the claim, had retired from politics and the issue was no longer live.
A couple of years ago the Ombudsman’s Office did an inquiry into the working of the OIA amidst complaints government departments were being obstructive in an effort to help out their ministers. It found no evidence of public servants making political decisions on OIA requests but that was based on the fact when it asked public servants that question they said no. From a journalist’s perspective it still remains an irritant in the quest to get hold of official information.
Finally people with an interest in privacy are also waiting for new Privacy legislation to make its way to Parliament once the 2017 election is over.
Taiwan - Association of Taiwan Journalists
FOI in Taiwan is an important issue that shall protect by constitution and law. Since the Constitution has been established in 1911 and the latest issue about media professional willingness which had decided by constitution court in 2000, people understand the concept. Until 2005, the Legislative Yuan( Congress) approved the new law “The Freedom of Government Information Law” to improve the transparency of the governmental information and let people and media to have their right to know about the public affairs or official decision. This law may provide people and media to supervise the government and secure the democracy.
In current situation, media and people can access the all kind information easily besides those protect by regulations according to national security or by private information protection law, but media still need to against and to distinguish some propaganda news release from commercial enterprises or different units of government.
Thailand - National Union of Journalists, Thailand (NUJT)
Freedom of information, press freedom and freedom of assembly have not been improved much after the country succumbed to military coup that ousted the elected government in 2014. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), whose leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, became prime minister enacted the new constitution, but no sign of any election to come in 2018.
The NCPO has aggressively enforced defamation, lèse-majesté laws against critics of the regime and King Vajiralongkorn, the new King of Thailand. Media outlets branded as anti-junta were ordered to temporalily shutdown. Journalists, activists, academics and even lawyers have been facing intimidation from authorities. There are also arbitrary arrest and detention throughout the year.
(1) Pravit Rojanaphruk, 1 of 4 recipients of CPJ's 2017 International Press Freedom Award was summoned to the police in July following his Facebook post criticizing the NCPO. He later was charged on sedition and not allowed to go aboard to receive the award in November.
(2) Two journalists from Issara Institute, a famous Thai investigative media organization, were charged on trespassing after they interview a clerk working for an apartment owned by high ranking army officer, who has been accused of money laundering.
(3) The junta ordered the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to temporarily shut down two TV stations (Voice TV 21, Peace TV) for a week in April, following series of report on the extrajudicial killing of Lahu ethnic activists by the army.
(4) Jonathan Head, BBC correspondent in Thailand, was sued on defamation after he reported a story of fraud network targeting foreigners in southern Thailand. Before the charge was dropped, Thai police siezed his passport, interrupting his job because he could not go on an assignment abroad.
(5) Draft law on Protection and Promotion of Media Rights, Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards,endorsing by the Media Reform Committee (MRC) was criticized to be a tool for the NCPO in seeking control of news reporting in Thailand. If the law passes, the media outlets based in Thailand will be regulated by the National Media Council (NMC), appointed by the NCPO. The council comprises a number of Generals and advisers of the NCPO. Even though the professional journalist associations in Thailand have demanded the MRC to review the bill, and the council returned the draft to the National Legislative Assembly, some journalists still view it like the authority is just buying time.
Vanuatu - Media Association blong Vanuatu (MAV)
The Right to Information National Policy was drafted and approved by the Council of Minister in 2013. The following year in 2014, the then Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil officiated the launch of the document in front of the PM’s Office. This policy sets the framework of the RTI Bill that went to Parliament in November 2016 and was unanimously supported by the House. The Act became law in February 6 this year when it was gazetted by the State Law Office.
The Act provides for a 30 month implementation of the law. Within this period 3 separate Ministerial Orders will be issued to enforce the Act on government agencies that are ready for RTI. This 30 month period lapses on 6 August 2019.