Democracy thrives through freedom of information, but so can threats to state security, a senior government official told a conference in Phnom Penh on Monday organized to debate the issue of greater access to public information in Cambodia.
“Democracy breathes information [to survive] and so does terrorism,” Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said at the conference sponsored by the European Community and attended by government officials and representatives of international organizations and NGOs.
Allowing the public access to information could undermine national security, infringe on the privacy of individuals—such as their medical records—and pry into the internal workings of private companies, Om Yentieng added.
“Please check all the aspects of enlarging freedom of access to public information. Terrorists also need information,” he said.
Access to information should first start with the majority of Cambodians, Om Yentieng said, adding that it should focus on those who cannot read or do not have radios and TVs.
“Access to public information should not benefit only one group of people or foreigners,” he said.
Om Yentieng’s comments were made in response to participants who advocated greater access to public information as a means to increase government accountability, transparency and to fight corruption.
Luitgard Hammerer, of the UK-based Article 19 organization, which champions freedom of expression and the free flow of information, said that greater access to public information would benefit Cambodia by saving money through reduced corruption and increased public trust in the government.
Nisha Agrawal, World Bank country representative, said that 50 countries have passed public information laws and, as an example of information access, demonstrated the World Bank’s Web site.
But opposition lawmaker Son Chhay challenged Agrawal noting that she had not responded to his requests for the names of the companies involved in the military demobilization scandal which resulted in the government last year repaying the World Bank $2.8 million in misused funds.
Agrawal replied that such information should have been sought from the government.