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Access to information

Access to information

The Statesman (New Delhi)
November 8, 2000

SINGAPORE may be the most wired country in the region but access to
information is less than satisfactory. While Cambodia does not existing
information infrastructure allows easier access to information held by
the government agencies.

Prior to May 1998, Indonesia was considered a closed and secretive
country. Now as an emerging democracy with freedom of expression, it has
suddenly become very open. Indonesia?s draft information law, which is
still in the parliamentary process, is also the region?s most liberal.
To get information from the government in Malaysia is not easy. It
depends on who you are and whom you know by all accounts, Burma remains
the region?s most closed society, where access to information, even
basic statistics and data, is generally denied.

The Philippines and Thailand are the freest countries in Southeast Asia.
But when it comes to access to information, the Philippines ranks as the
region?s most open.

These were some of preliminary findings of a joint research project
conducted by the Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalists and
the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance. The comparative study
surveyed the availability of over 40 public records in Singapore,
Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and

These public records include macroeconomic data, social data related to
literacy, poverty and infant mortality, data on government budges and
contracts, and financial disclosures by officials and companies. The
survey also looked into information on parliamentary meetings and
inquiries as well as court proceedings and official investigations.

According to Sheila Coronel, who led the project, there is no
correlation between the level of development and access to information.
Singapore is a case in the point. The island is the region?s most
developed and wired country but access to information ranks low.

The most important factors that influence the openness of the surveyed
countries are the form of the political system ? pluralistic or not ?
the structure of media ownership, and a culture of discussion and
political participation.

The Asian crisis of 1997 revealed a link between the public?s and
media?s lack of information and the economic breakdown. In the case of
Thailand, financial institutions, both state and private, lied and
cooked up statistics. Authorities frequently twisted economic reality to
fit public expectations.

Similarly in Indonesia, the economic crisis precipitated the demise of
former president Suharto, which allowed a free press to prosper. By the
end of this year, Indonesia will join Thailand in promulgating an
information law.

In Singapore and Malaysia, there is now more access to economic and
financial information. Although access to other kinds of information
continued to be limited, there is some opening up in Singapore, said

The survey also ranked the countries according to replies of either
?yes? or ?no? in providing access to information. On the ?yes? replies,
the Philippines came first with 68 per cent, Cambodia and Thailand
ranked second and third with 50 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively.
Singapore and Malaysia received 44 per cent and 36 per cent, while
Vietnam and Indonesia scored 21 and 19 per cent, Burma got 5 per cent.
Strangely enough, both Singapore and Burma scored 56 per cent when
counting the  ?no? answers followed by 49 per cent for Vietnam and 43
per cent for Cambodia.

This raw data still needs to be refined. Errors are to be expected and
their margin will vary from country to country depending on habits of
inquiry and a culture of secrecy.

Researchers contended that the reasons why Cambodia scores high as an
open society is because laws and regulations are still emerging after
decades of civil war so in certain cases there is leeway to obtain
information if one knows the right persons or channels.

Burma stands out as a country where virtually no reliable information is
available to anyone. The survey said that even basic macro-economic data
related to GNP, balance of payments and population is not always

Information access in Southeast Asia is proliferating slowly with the
growing political pluralism in the region. But there is no guarantee
that it will last. Changes in regime affect the nature of information
openness. A government is likely to tighten the screws on information
during the time of conflict the controversy. Thailand is a good case in
point. Finally, the survey, which will be published next May, concluded
that the balance can be swung in fabour of freedom of information by
spirited citizens and the media. ? The Nation/ Asia News Network