The International Day for Universal Access to Information fell on 28 September – it’s a day that the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) commemorates given our work around right to information and the urgent need for greater information transparency and justice in Malaysia.
This year’s theme, “The importance of online spaces for access to information”, recognises the significance of accessibility to digital technologies and its intersection with the right to access information.
The recent announcement by the prime minister, giving the greenlight to proceed with the enactment of a freedom of information or right to information law and to amend the Official Secrets Act to ensure critical alignment, signifies a positive move towards creating an enabling and robust information ecosystem. This will ultimately enable the public to meaningfully access public information held by government agencies, thus improving public service and promoting public participation in national policies.
We need to locate the discussions on right to information within the complex dynamics and evolving landscape of the digital era. The internet and new digital technology, including AI, pose both challenges and opportunities within the digital sphere and its influences. We have seen the power of the internet and digital technology in bridging the geographical and digital barriers across Malaysia, and how this access can ensure the free flow of information and foster open dialogue and diverse opinions.
On the other hand, there is also a need to look at multiple factors that contribute to information disorder, such as the spread of misinformation or disinformation, hate speech and the use of AI and algorithmic content creation, which determines the integrity of the information we access and relatedly affects our decision-making.
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The 2022 general election and the recent state elections saw the spread of disinformation, as well as the proliferation of information and digital content that were grounded in divisive and hate-based narratives around race, religion and royalty – the “three Rs”.
Findings from the CIJ’s social media monitoring clearly demonstrate the critical need to interrogate how digital space is leveraged as a key tool in spreading information that highly influences election outcomes.
Further, the recent high-handed use of the law, specifically the Communications and Multimedia Act, to ban and restrict access to online media, including MalaysiaNow and UtusanTV, acts to stifle our access to diverse information.
In commemorating the International Day for Universal Access to Information, we urge the state to ensure a progressive right to information regime, which will:
- Promote a culture of transparency and openness and contribute to enhancing the public’s trust in the governance process
- This would require a thorough review, amendment or repeal of laws that restrict our access to information and related freedom of expression, such as the Sedition Act, the Evidence Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act
- We also do not require new laws to combat ‘fake news’ or hate speech, but rather should focus on creating awareness and educating the public to be more media and digital-literate. This includes having more initiatives such as the Biar Betul! slot on Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) scheduled to start effective 1 October, aimed at debunking fake news
- Recognise that the right to information is a right, where access is the rule, and secrecy and non-disclosures are the exceptions
- This would mean that, in principle, the Official Secrets Act should be repealed. Notwithstanding, any amendments to the act must ensure that it is aligned with the new right to information legislation. Public interest must prevail over political expediency.
- Guarantee that any restrictions to the disclosure and access to public information must be grounded in international human rights standards of legitimacy, necessity and proportionality, vis-a-vis the actual harm
- Public interest must prevail over political expediency
- Ensure the establishment of an independent oversight body, such as a right to information commission, with an adequate budget to support its mandate.
- Commit to make critical adjustments to institutional structures to support the operationalisation of the law, thus shifting the current pervasive culture of ‘secret by default’ to ‘open by default’
In short, Malaysia must uphold its international commitments, including in meeting goal 16.10 of the sustainable development goals and the open government partnership, by guaranteeing an information system that is well-resourced, progressive, promoted, monitored and enforced to protect and promote the right to information.
There needs to be an unequivocal commitment by the government to ensure adequate budget allocations to support the implementation of the act and to institutionalise the right to information at every level of governance.
For proactive disclosure and open government data policy to work, the government needs to make all government data open by default and put in place structural mechanisms to ensure a good data management policy and framework to fully optimise the potential value of government data, while protecting data privacy and security, and incorporate a monitoring, evaluation and enforcement mechanism to ensure realisation of the commitment to making access to information a public right.
Further, to celebrate the International Day for Universal Access to InformationI\, the CIJ in partnership with the legal affairs division of the Prime Minister’s Department and Article 19 will be organising a roundtable in October 2023 that aims to understand how digital technologies and access facilitate the exercise of rights and access to information online. Stay tuned!
Wathshlah G Naidu is executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism