Cambodia's long-awaited access-to-information law – one that human rights experts say is critical for combating corruption in Cambodia – is in its final stretches, though observers yesterday expressed scepticism that the government would implement the law in the way it’s intended.
Representatives from the Ministry of Information and Unesco, which have led the effort to draft the law over the last two years, say they expect the final version to come out Friday, at the end of a three-day review meeting in Sihanoukville.
Unesco Cambodia representative Anne Lemaistre said yesterday that stakeholders were working through the night to finish up portions of the law.“We know each other quite well now,” Lemaistre said. “We still need to discuss some things, but I’m really satisfied. It went very well.”
Rights organisations in Cambodia have been campaigning for a freedom of information law since the early 2000s.
If passed, the proposed legislation means that public officials will be required to release budget documents, spending records, draft laws, meeting minutes and any other type of recorded information to the public upon request, with ostensibly limited exceptions.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said he was impressed by the draft law, which sets a deadline of 15 working days for officials to respond to legitimate information requests.
It seems “that the government, particularly the Ministry of Information, does have a genuine will and wish to have the access to information law”, he said.
Read more: When access is denied
Nevertheless, concerns remain. The law carves out exceptions for some documents deemed confidential, including those that may harm national security, damage international relations or disrupt law enforcement investigations.
Sutawan Chanprasert, a Bangkok-based program officer at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, said the law could be a “milestone” for Cambodia if implemented correctly but that the possibility of hiding information under those exceptions remained.
“Given the human rights situation in Cambodia . . . it is not convincing that the government is so eager in terms of promoting human rights,” Sutawan said.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, also raised the possibility that the law could be misused. “As we have seen in the past, some laws which are originally intended to protect individuals’ fundamental freedoms, such as the [Law on NGOs], have been instead misused to restrict people’s freedoms, due to the vagueness of their terms,” Sopheap said in an email.
Lemaistre, however, expressed confidence that exceptions had been narrowly defined. For example, national security concerns are broken down into specific categories of information, such as weapons development plans, military base maps and intelligence, she said.
But enforcement remains a concern, given that Cambodia’s courts – perceived as among its most corrupt institutions, and routinely accused of being beholden to the executive – can be trusted to punish officials who do not release legitimately requested information.
Ouk Kimseng, spokesman for the Ministry of Information, said the ministry is advocating for a public, independent ombudsman office to mediate complaints.
After the draft law is finished, it will head to an inter-ministerial review group before it reaches the National Assembly, he said.
“We have been working for such a long time,” Kimseng said. “We need to make it as good as possible.”