The government conducts all its business with full transparency, a member of Parliament for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP told a conference on Friday where the need for a Freedom of Information (FOI) law was the focus of discussions.
“Where is the information hidden in the government?” Cheam Yeap asked after delivering a speech at the conference.
“There is no hiding of information of the government budget,” Mr. Yeap said.
“The only information that is hidden is the one which would jeopardize national security,” he claimed.
Speaking on the second day of the conference, which was organized by Unesco and the Swedish Embassy, Mr. Yeap said in his prepared speech that a FOI law is “important,” but added that existing laws already ensure an environment of complete openness on the part of the government.
Pointing to articles in the Constitution, which refer broadly to freedom of expression, and the 1995 Press Law—which only applies to journalists—Mr. Yeap said such legislation already reflects an environment whereby people have the freedom to access government information.
Mr. Yeap also said that the government’s slow pace in considering an FOI law, which has been in the works since 2004, was simply due to a lack of time and resources.
“We are in a cage with three rabbits and I have only one arrow and I am asked to shoot the three rabbits with one arrow, but I cannot do it,” Mr. Yeap said, using an analogy.
Mr. Yeap, however, left the conference to attend a meeting on Friday at the National Assembly where a law was approved outlawing any denial of crimes by the Khmer Rouge.
The law was drafted in a record four days, after Mr. Hun Sen asked the Assembly this week to promulgate the law in reaction to comments allegedly made by opposition leader Kem Sokha. The Assembly, which is dominated by the CPP, will debate, and undoubtedly pass, the law next Friday.
At the conference, Anne Lemaistre, Unesco’s country director, said Cambodia already has the legal framework to enact a FOI law, but movement on it has stalled since its drafting in 2007.
“I think it is not the wish of the government [to move the law forward],” Ms. Lemaistre said. “In fact, we have many cases of texts like this that have been lagging for many years and I think there is a lack of political will.”
Ms. Lemaistre said that ordinary people have a hunger for basic information that would inform their daily lives, such as the official cost of a birth certificate, or how land issues in their commune could affect their farming life.
“[This information] should be released and easy to get and accessible,” Ms. Lemaistre said. “What is really detrimental to the trust between government and citizens is [when the people] do not know and they feel that this information is hidden from them.”
Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media—a co-organizer of the conference—said that along with an FOI law, an independent committee would be needed to ensure the government complies with such a law, should it ever be passed.
“When the government doesn’t have the political will to provide such information because of corruption or non-transparent management, or because of non-democratic governance, an independent committee is needed to handle these [FOI] requests,” Mr. Nguon Teang said.