National Audit Authority Secretary-General Luk Nhep said Tuesday at a budget transparency forum that of seven key documents produced by the Cambodian government each year in drafting and reviewing the national budget only three are publicly released.
The forum was organized to launch the “Open Budget Initiative Survey Report 2008,” a report of data collected by NGO Forum on Cambodia for use in the Washington-based International Budget Partnership’s “Open Budget Survey 2008.”
The International Budget Partnership report-released Dec 31-states that Cambodia’s “government provides the public with scant information on the central government’s budget and financial activities during the course of the budget year.”
Access to information in the budget process would only improve the people of Cambodia’s trust in its government, said a panel of experts gathered at the forum, which included Luk Nhep, World Bank financial management specialist Ly Sodeth, and NGO Forum officials.
Ly Sodeth said the Ministry of Finance works hard and transparency is improving, but there is still a lot of work to do.
“The ministry shares some information on their Web site, but only on their Web site, and there are no hard copies,” Ly Sodeth said. “Many people in the provinces do not have access.”
At present, Luk Nhep said, the government only releases three of the seven documents that the panel recommended should be publicly available.
The first, the budget law, is released only after it has already been adopted, but Luk Nhep said he feels it should be available early in the budget process for public debate and analysis. The second are monthly reports by the government during the year the budget is being spent. The third publicized document is a year-end report that details what is spent and collected, but does not explain any discrepancies that exist, he said.
Panelists said that in addition to these three, the state should also release publicly the audit reports of the National Audit Authority, the pre-budget statement, the draft budget law, and the mid-year review.
“We don’t have a law of access to information [in Cambodia]; we only have freedom of expression,” Luk Nhep said.
According to the NGO Forum report’s findings, there are legal grounds for making such budget documents available, but the information remains withheld. The report cites article 29 of the Audit Law, which states that any reports issued by the Auditor General shall be deemed public documents. In addition, article 84 of the 2008 Finance Law states that all accounting and financial reports must be transparent and publicly disclosed.
Luk Nhep said articles 37, 38 and 39 of the Audit Law allow the withholding of information if it threatens national security or would unfairly prejudice the commercial interest of any legal entity or person.
But often a simple receipt is withheld, citing those articles as a justification, Luk Nhep said.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, chairman of the finance commission of National Assembly, said by telephone Tuesday that he has not reviewed the open budget survey report but was skeptical of the findings.
“Some organizations opposed to the government open their eyes and see government in the black way; moreover their activities discourage the government.” Cheam Yeap said, adding, “However, this is their rights to say this. We have various systems to follow on the national budget.”
He said the government has many partners such as the Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund to discuss the budget and carefully examine it before public release.
(Additional reporting by Rann Reuy)