SOUTHEAST ASIA’S UNEVEN INFORMATION LANDSCAPE
Democracy and Information Access
the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) conducted a study that documents the state of access to information in eight countries in Southeast Asia. The study, published in the book, The Right to Know: Access to Information in Southeast Asia, examined the laws that guarantee or restrict access, and describes the media, and the political and social environments in which information is given out or withheld. The study paid particular attention to the state of the media, which are the major channels of information, it also looked at the experience of ordinary citizens in demanding information from the State. The study surveyed the accessibility of over 40 public records and ranked the countries according to their openness.
The experience of Southeast Asia shows that dramatic changes in information access are the outcome of the fall of authoritarian regimes. This is different from the experience elsewhere, as in Britain, where, with the assumption to power of a new Labor government, a freedom of information law was passed amid intense lobbying from citizens' groups and strong support from Parliament. In India, state legislation on access to information was the result of grass-roots agitation rather than a change in political regimes. The Southeast Asian case is more akin to that of South Africa, where the post-apartheid Constitution included the recognition of the right to information and mandated the enactment of an information law within three years.
In Southeast Asia, the fall of dictatorships was followed by democratic reforms which created an atmosphere that made the free flow of information possible. In Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, the institutionalization of democracy began with the promulgation of new constitutions that guaranteed a wide range of freedoms, including those of information and expression. At the same time, the controls on the media were loosened, allowing for a proliferation of independent newspapers and broadcast stations. In the Philippines after Marcos and in Indonesia after the fall of Soeharto, information ministries were abolished and the pall of fear they cast over the media went away with them.
In these countries, the democracy boom came with a media boom. The explosion of new news organizations querying officials, investigating malfeasance and reporting on events with unrestrained vigor had a liberalizing effect on information flow. While bureaucracies may continue to block access, their resistance is whittled down by pressure from the media and a public emboldened by the new freedoms it enjoys and its experience in the mobilization of pro-democracy protests.
In Thailand, the 1997 Constitution promulgated after consultations with various social sectors provided for the establishment of independent mechanisms to increase government transparency and accountability, including an information commission. The commission itself was established after the Official Information Act was passed in 1997, five years after the "Bloody May" uprising and the year the baht fell precipitously and set off an unprecedented economic crisis in the rest of the region. The Act sets procedures for allowing citizens access to a wide range of information. It has its shortcomings but has also revolutionized information access in that country.
The Philippines has no information law, but a constitutional guarantee of the right to information, a post-Marcos law that makes it the duty of officials to provide information to the public and a judiciary that has tended to rule in favor of the citizens' right to know, have created a legal atmosphere that makes it easier for both journalists and citizens to assert their right to information. In addition, a tradition of openness and discussion that has roots in the country's longer experience with democracy and a free press provide for wider access than in most other Southeast Asian countries.
What is notable in both the Thai and the Philippine cases is that today the main concern of journalists and citizens in these countries is no longer removing restrictions on information control but refining procedures for information access. What preoccupies information-seekers in the Philippines and Thailand are such issues as bureaucratic discretion over crucial bits of information, improving information filing and retrieval systems, removing political intervention in the release of information and changing bureaucratic attitudes to make access easier. Although large areas of information - anything related to the monarchy in the case of Thailand, and sensitive military, economic and national security information in both Thailand and the Philippines - are protected from public scrutiny, the information regimes in these two countries are more liberal than others in the region and are on a par with those in many democracies elsewhere in the world.
As the following tables show, the Philippines and Thailand top the list in the survey on the accessibility to the public of government-held records. The survey was devised by listing 43 key public records containing a range of information: macroeconomic data, socio-economic indicators, laws and parliamentary proceedings, government budgets and contracts, information on public officials and data on private individuals. Then journalists and researchers in eight countries made the rounds of various government offices and asked to have access to these records. The results were tallied to see what percentage of the records is publicly available in each country.
Indonesia, which became a democracy in 1998, lags behind Thailand and the Philippines in terms of information access. That is because Indonesia, torn apart by political upheaval and ethnic strife, remains in disarray. Despite a new Constitution, restrictive laws remain in place. The Soeharto-era bureaucracy is largely intact, its tradition of secrecy and uncommunicativeness generally unbroken. Rapid changes in government (Indonesia changed presidents three times from 1998 to 2001) have also made it difficult to implement bureaucratic reforms that would result in greater information access. An information law, however, has been submitted for deliberation in the Indonesian parliament, and has the support of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the newly unfettered press.
Political Clans Make a Comeback
Vinia M. Datinguinoo and Avie Olarte
AT 71, Carlos R. Imperial (2nd district, Albay) is among the veteran lawmakers in the 12th House. He is also among the many current congressmen who belong to a long line of legislators in their families. Imperial, in fact, is the namesake—and nephew—of Albay's representative in the First Philippine Assembly in 1907; his own father, Domingo, was elected senator in 1934. The way things are these days, chances are there will still be a member of the Imperial clan in Congress a century from now.
Only three years ago, electoral politics in the Philippines seemed to have
taken a step forward. A generation of younger, better-educated
lawmakers was elected to the House
of Representatives, loosening the grip of political families
that had dominated the legislature for generations. READ