By ThaiPublica, originally published in Thai on October 22, 2012
Fifteen years ago, the Official Information Act of 1997 was introduced. Thai citizens were given more rights to request the disclosure of official government information, even before such similar laws were introduced in the United Kingdom and Germany. But even with such progress, it hasn’t resulted in simpler access to official information yet, which is in contrast to the intention of the bill.
The Thailand Information Center for Civil Rights in Investigative Journalism (TCIJ) organized a workshop explaining the Official Information Act, with Thianchai Na Nakhorn, an expert from the Office of the Official Information Commission (OIC) and OIC director Pol. Lt. Col. Thianrath Wichiensan joining the discussion.
The original thought behind the Information Act was the contrasting notions of the right of disclosure of public information versus the necessity of official classified information and freedom of the press versus state-sponsored censorship.
Thianrath said that under the Information Act, every citizen has the right to request the disclosure of any government information, but whether or not the request will be granted, is up to the consideration of the authorities. In the case of a rejection, the authorities have to give a reason and mostly it is because of “national security” reasons or potential “negative impact on the public”. However, citizens have the right to appeal the rejection.
“In the case of the government’s rice pledging scheme, the Ministry of Commerce have denied the disclosure of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), claiming it is a bi-lateral issue, thus the information cannot be publicized and (according to them) ‘something that has to be accepted, otherwise one is against the scheme.’ But the citizens are not exercising their legal right to look into the MOU. It could be that the people are discouraged of their right to information. But this law is their essential tool! When there’s a request and the authorities are rejecting it, the citizen has the right to bring the appeal to the Administrative Court,” said Thianrath.
Ever since the passing of the law in 1997, the number of requests and appeals have increased; 2011 had the most requests (586) and 249 appeals.
If we are breaking down the requests and appeals from January 2007 until August 2012, most of them are for government information concerning exertion of power in office with 658 requests and 267 appeals.
Thianchai has listed ten problems with the application of the Information Act:
1. The reasoning given by both authorities and citizen to request or reject information disclosure that is “for the public good”, but at the same time not giving a clear definition of “for the public good”.
2. The citizens have no easy access to the information.
3. There is no publicizing of official project and budget plans.
4. Authorities rarely tend to disclose information regarding environmental studies.
5. The OIC has a very small staff, only convenes to meetings once a month and cannot fully investigate. Thus, the general public has to assist in appeal cases.
6. Official information is not organized very well, which makes access difficult.
7. The line between personal and public information is blurry, e.g. information about stocks in possession of politicians.
8. The definition of prohibiting disclosure of information according to Article 15 (risk to national security, decline in efficiency of law enforcement, endangerment of life or safety to any person etc). An appeal can be submitted to a committee, which takes a lot of time to consider. Also, there should be a provision to protect the discretion of an officer who is subject of disclosed information.
9. There’s little usage of the Information Act in combination with the Administrative Procedure Act.
10. Efforts to amend and improve the Information Act are difficult.
The following issues that could be improved in the Official Information Act are: enforcement, access to official information, more clearer definitions of rejections under Article 15, protection of personal information, focussing on preserving information that can have historical significance, more responsibility for those tasked to maintain the Information Act and protection and punishment of state officials.
Translated by Saksith Saiyasombut
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ThaiPublica is a Thai investigative and independent journalism website. Founded in 2011, it is run by a team of seasoned journalists with years of experience in the news industry. Follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook.