A leading advocacy group has called on the government to back a draft law on freedom of information that was proposed by opposition lawmakers late last year, saying it could be “an extremely positive step” toward ensuring public access to government information in Cambodia.
The London-based organization, Article 19, released a legal analysis on Sept 20 along with the Cambodia-based Advocacy and Policy Institute that praised the opposition’s proposed draft law on access to information, saying it meets international legal standards.
Currently, government information is often kept far from the public eye, and attempts to introduce more openness have been blocked by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party. On Dec 23, the government rejected a proposal by the SRP to discuss the draft law on freedom of information at the National Assembly.
The 14-chapter draft required all national institutions, including courts, to share information with the public and to release important information at least once a year.
“The draft law contains all the main features that are expected from an effective law: an independent oversight body, for example, and an Information Disclosure Tribunal,” Article 19 said in its analysis.
Article 19 said the law was “an extremely positive step towards the effective protection of [freedom of information].” It noted that Cambodia currently lacks legislation to protect freedom of information, which is not enshrined in the Constitution.
Article 19 suggested minor amendments to the draft, such as ensuring that procedures for accessing information are simple and procedure fees are reasonable.
The group said 90 countries had adopted similar freedom of information laws and it urged the government and all parties to support the draft law, adding that civil society groups should “rally around this draft and promote broader public understanding of its provisions.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay welcomed Article 19’s support for the draft law, adding, “As soon as I get the suggestions back, I will re-submit it [to the Assembly].”
Mr Chhay said the CPP-led Foreign Relations Committee at the Assembly had spent one day examining his draft Access to Information Law before rejecting it. “They didn’t seem ready to consider it,” he said.
The introduction of a freedom of information law is key to reducing corruption and improving governance, Mr Chhay said. Currently, he said, all types of information—from government payrolls to licenses for exploitation of natural resources—are kept secret from the public, and even from parliamentarians.
“Cambodia in the last ten years has become a place where the government operates without sharing information with Parliament,” he said.
Adopting a law on freedom of information is particularly important now, Mr Chhay said, as Cambodia is expected to start generating revenue from its offshore oil and gas reserves within the next few years.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said he would review the SRP’s draft law on freedom of information again after the Assembly returned from recess.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the proposed law had not been considered for discussion at the Assembly because it “was just a translation from various international recommendations.”
“The SRP lawyers recognized this fact and agreed to send this idea to the ministry in relation with Parliament to draft it properly,” he said in an e-mail.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that since the late 1990s, parliamentarians and international donors had been pushing for a freedom of information law.
He said the law would form an essential counterpart to the Anti-Corruption Law, which the government passed in late 2010 after more than decade of wrangling over its contents.
“The Anti-Corruption Law will lack effectiveness if we don’t have the Access to Information Law,” he said. “Also, for the government’s goal of establishing good governance, it’s very important.”
“At the meetings with donors, [government officials] say they want to have a policy for [freedom of information] first” before having a law, he said. “This policy has so far not been seriously discussed.”