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Draft of long-awaited access-to-information law unveiled

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith talks to press at workshop to disseminate the draft access-to-information law at the Phnom Penh Hotel yesterday.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith talks to press at workshop to disseminate the draft access-to-information law at the Phnom Penh Hotel yesterday. Heng Chivoan

Draft of long-awaited access-to-information law unveiled

A proposed access-to-information law more than a decade in the making was unveiled to the public yesterday, with just one item left to finalise – punishments for officials who refuse to disclose public information.

The Ministry of Information and Unesco led the drafting of the law, which enshrines the public’s right to access information held by Cambodia’s public institutions.

Precise sentences for disobedient officials will be determined by the Ministry of Justice after “one final meeting”, according to Unesco Cambodia representative Anne Lemaistre, who called the three-year drafting process a “great adventure”.

“We have very long conversations, but it was always a collegial atmosphere,” Lemaistre said.

The proposed law still faces wariness from some civil society organisations, which have expressed concern about enforcement and misuse.

Read the proposed law In English | In Khmer

Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, questioned some of the categories of information deemed confidential in the law, including an exemption for “preliminary plans of . . . government loans, tax reform, and state revenues”, and another for “preliminary plans of sales or purchases of state property or foreign investment”.

He also said he found it worrisome the draft law gives the “officer in charge of information” the responsibility to define and classify confidential information. “There should be a very objective review of these concerning points by legal experts, preferably by both local and international experts who favour maximum transparency and open government,” Kol said in an email.

However, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said the law gives citizens multiple avenues to seek redress if their information requests are denied, including the head of the institution, the courts and the local ombudsman office.

He also said civil society organisations could help “check” on the implementation of the law.

“These are the efforts made by all of us to gain the trust, good governance, and for democracy for the country,” Kanharith said. “When people are informed and have balanced news, they can choose their leaders for themselves.”

Advocacy and Policy Institute Senior Technical Adviser Neb Sinthay said he suggested integrating the ombudsman offices into the law as an “alternative mechanism” to the courts. The government established such offices in each district last year as a one-stop shop for citizens to file complaints against local government.

“At each meeting, they really listened to us and welcomed our comments,” said Sinthay, who expressed satisfaction with the final draft.

San Chey, of ANSA-EAP, said the public still distrusts the courts, which are seen as the country’s most corrupt institution and beholden to the ruling party. However, he declined to say whether he felt confident about the law’s implementation.

“As long as the court is more independent, the law enforcement will be more helpful in accessing information,” Chey said.

The draft law also offers some protection for whistleblowers, making it clear that people who speak out about crimes they witness at their jobs cannot be punished.

Separately, a proposed state secrets law that was opposed by civil society organisations has been canned, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.

“After consulting with lawyers, they told us the state secrets law has already been stipulated in existing law, so we don’t need to have another,” Sopheak said yesterday.

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