Reforming FOI Laws in Asia Urged to Help Environment

FreedomInfo.org – Asian countries need to improve their freedom of information laws as one component of providing better environmental information to the public, according to a statement issued May 1 from a conference in Jakarta attended by “representatives of governments, international organizations, civil society organizations, and academia from China, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, Philippines and Thailand.”

The issuance of  the “Jakarta Declaration” came at the end of three-day conference conducted as part of STRIPE, “Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment,” a two-year research project undertaken by the World Resources Institute’s Access Initiative with its partners, the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI) and Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL).

“The project has sought to assess the use of the Freedom of information Law in Indonesia and Thailand to obtain access to discrete types of environmental and pollution control information, the availability of proactively released information on air and water and the challenges faced by communities and activists in heavily polluted areas to obtain information on air and water quality,” according to a description.

The Declaration includes numerous recommendations, many related to FOI and some about the need for laws mandating collection and disclosure of environmental data.

“Laws that guarante a specific right of access to environmental information without a request need to be operationalized to ensure quick and timely access to environmental information,” says one recommendation among several that promote proactive disclosure.

In proposing the Asian governments improve their FOI laws, the Declaration says that areas of priority in the region include:

a.       Protection of public officials from being sued for the release of information under FOI laws;

b.      Penalties and administrative sanctions where public officials intentionally breach the law;

c.       Reforming broad exemptions in FOI laws and ensuring the public interest is considered in deliberations whether to grant or refuse information;

d.      Removing limitations of the right to information to only citizens;

e.       Lowering fees for making requests and obtaining copies of documents;

f.       Removing requirements for people to provide a reason to make a request;

g.       Inclusion of private corporations that are required to carry out public functions and state owned enterprises within the scope of the law;

h.      Developing up-to-date archive and records management laws that mandate the collection, retention and management of information by governments;

i.        Ensuring that information commissioners are independent  and have sufficient power to order the release of information.

A related set of recommendations are aimed at effective implementation of FOI laws and the list is:

a.       Providing appropriate incentives to government officials to ensure compliance with FOI requirements;

b.      Allocation of necessary budgetary and other resources to ensure efficient and timely administration;

c.       Appointment of information commissioners with the tools to ensure adequate enforcement of the FOI law and providing methods for the disclosure of their decisions;

d.      Implementation of proactive disclosure provisions in FOI laws;

e.       Public education and training to empower civil society and communities to make full use of the right;

f.       Improving training for government officials and systems for tracking, transferring and monitoring requests,  and regular monitoring and reporting on the operation of the law;

g.       Collecting statistics on the number of requests submitted by the public, publication of FOI decisions, information declared public, and decisions or recommendations of information commissioners;

h.      Review of the operation and compliance with the law, by legislative bodies and information commissioners.