15 April 2008

Guarding the Freedom of Information Act

By Warief Djajanto Basorie

Indonesia will have the law on access to public information several weeks after the House of Representatives (DPR) passed the bill on April 3.

The new law requires all public bodies to disclose public information at least every six months. They must also announce immediately information concerning threats to public safety. This may relate to natural or man-made calamities.

They must also provide timely information relating to the work plan of projects, including outlay estimates. Within 10 days of receiving a request for information, the public body is required to give a written response saying whether the requested information is in its custody. If it is not, the public body must state what public body possesses the information. State-owned enterprises, businesses owned by local governments and other businesses owned by the state are obligated to provide public information.

Information exempted from disclosure includes information on strategy, intelligence, operations, tactics and techniques relating to defense and state security, military installations and encoding/decoding systems.

Any public body that intentionally withholds public information that should be disclosed is liable to a maximum one-year prison sentence and/or a fine of Rp 5 million (US$550). Further, any person who deliberately destroys a public information document or causes its disappearance can receive a maximum two-year jail sentence and/or a Rp 10 million fine.

Any person who uses public information illegally is liable to a maximum one-year jail sentence and Rp 5 million fine. The point on illegal use of public information has to be clarified, perhaps in an implementing regulation.

Public information is defined as information produced, stored, managed, sent and received by a public body that relates to public officials and the conduct of state affairs. It is also any other information that relates to the public interest.

A public body is defined as any executive, legislative or judicial institution or any other body whose main function relates to the conduct of state affairs operating partially or wholly from the central or local government budget. Public bodies also cover nongovernment organizations that receive funding from the state budget, public donations and foreign sources.

This apparently pro-public law may face resistance from the bureaucracy, the keepers of the public information. Changing mindsets may be an initial task in the two-year transition period when the government will draw up a slew of implementing regulations and guidelines.

Agus Sudibyo, coordinator of the Freedom of Information Coalition, said the new bill should be welcomed with a critical attitude and caution. From the standpoint of a right-to-know advocate, he cited two lapses in the act.

One is Article 51 that makes it a crime for people who use public information illegally. The act should only regulate access and not the use of public information, he argues.

A second issue is the forming of an information commission to resolve disputes on public information access. Article 30 assigns the government to recruit the commissioners. This article rules out the commission of ever becoming independent and indicates the government's reluctance to have an information commission at all.

Information freedom advocates are also concerned with the pending state secrets bill that may stifle the Access to Public Information Act. Our legislators will have to work hard to keep the provisions in the act intact. They should demand the state secrets bill should in no way deform and debilitate the Access to Public Information Act.

The act benefits researchers and reporters. Public officials will realize the new law will also be to their advantage. Prosecuting agencies, for instance, have had difficulties in procuring documents from public bodies that the authorities are investigating. So have tax officials in assessing the taxable assets of public officials and institutions.

Other public officials can gain from the act. Finance officials frequently face difficulty in gathering information from line ministries to audit their budget and nonbudget funds. The state planning agency, Bappenas, often is unable to secure information for the accounting of the use of foreign grants and loans in government offices.

The public office that stands to benefit the most may well be the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). It already has the power to prosecute. The new act lends the independent agency added legal clout to bust graft.

If the purpose of the new law is to promote public openness, a first step is for the DPR and the ministry of communication and information technology to post the full text of the act on their websites. As of this writing, website visitors have not found it yet.

The writer is a freelance writer in Jakarta. He can be reached at wariefdj@yahoo.com. source: the jakarta post, April 15, 2008

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