Sat, 15 Mar 2003

Offices may be sanctioned for concealing information

Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The freedom of information bill currently in deliberation at the House of Representatives (DPR) will provide a chance for people to take legal measures should public offices refuse to give out information, a legislator says.

Tumbu Saraswati, member of the committee deliberating the bill, emphasized that the bill carried a penalty of between one to five years in jail for any violators.

"We are adopting the spirit of transparency in other countries," said Tumbu of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) on Friday at an international seminar on freedom of information here.

She cited Article 28 of the bill, which says that information users can complain to public offices should they ignore people's requests, take levies, give insufficient information or be unable to provide information on a regular basis.

According to the bill, all public offices have a duty to provide information to the public.

Mukelani Dimba of South Africa and Nakorn Serirak of Thailand, who also spoke at the seminar, shared the experiences of their respective countries in implementing the freedom of information law.

Dimba revealed that in South Africa, the freedom of information law did not apply to select state offices, including the Cabinet and its committees, the judiciary and individual members of Parliament or of a provincial legislature.

The ruling party, the African National Congress, argued that Cabinet exclusion was an internationally accepted norm, said Dimba.

Indonesia's information bill also recognizes some exceptions. Among the information restricted from public viewing are those which could affect law enforcement, endanger witnesses and officers, halt an investigation, affect protection of property rights, disadvantage the defense strategy and interfere with personal privacy.

Nakorn Serirak, meanwhile, said that the Official Information Act took effect in Thailand five years ago.

He emphasized that the act was a crucial component in the development of democracy. It encouraged people to take a more active part in politics by expressing their opinions, needs and suggestions.

Nakorn noticed that the number of people who made use of this Act had been increasing.

He added that there were 122 complaints about government disclosures in 1999, as compared to just 26 in 1998. Most complaints concerned poor service and civil servants' lack of willingness to provide information.

Agus Sudibyo, member of the Coalition for Freedom of Information, said that the low response from the public to the bill was because of the predominant trend of non-transparency in the past decades.

He said the culture of non-transparency had made people unaware of their right to information.

Agus added that the bureaucracy had also played pivotal role in maintaining a culture of non-transparency.

Toby Mendel from the London-based Article 19 noted that freedom of information laws had been in existence for over 200 years.

The history of freedom of information can be traced back to Sweden, where freedom of information has been a protected right since 1766.

The U.S. passed a freedom of information act in 1967 and was followed by legislation in Australia, Canada and New Zealand in 1982.