After years of officials’ pledging to finish a law regulating public access to government records, the Information Minister on Thursday said the draft law had reached a review stage at the Council of Ministers, but he offered no timeline for the bill’s passage.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the draft Access to Information Law had been sent to the Office of the Council of Ministers “months ago” after officials finished discussions with the Justice Ministry about provisions related to penalties for officials who failed to provide requested information.
“We have finalized all this [discussion with the Justice Ministry]. We have already sent to the Council of Ministers, and the Council of Ministers will set time for a meeting,” Kanharith told reporters on the sidelines of a media conference in Phnom Penh, organized by Unesco, a U.N. body spearheading the draft law for more than a decade.
“We have sent [the draft law] a few months ago but as we have known, we were busy at work with the Asean ministerial meeting,” Kanharith said, without specifying when the draft law was sent to the Council of Ministers.
Supporters of the Access to Information bill hope it will give journalists and the public access to government records and documents, but civil society groups have criticized the government for attempting to limit the law’s scope.
Information Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn said the draft law was being discussed by legal experts at the Council of Ministers in recent months.
When asked if CamboJA could review the latest version, Sophorn said it was in the hands of a “technical team.”
“In this draft law, we are continuing to work with the Council of Jurists of the Council of Ministers to review some issues,” he said, adding that the ministry had considered views of civil society organizations raised in the past.
“As the ministry’s commitment, we will make an effort to finalize some points that were left on this draft law, and send this draft law by following the procedure as soon as possible,” Sophorn said.
He said the Council of Jurists had to review all draft legislation to ensure consistency with other laws.
Even without the Access to Information Law, the Press Law gave Cambodians rights to access information, the official added.
Article 5 of the Press Law says the “press has the right of access to information in government-held records,” but includes various exceptions, including for records that cause harm to national security or diplomatic relations; violate individuals’ privacy, such as “files of civil servants, medical files and other confidential official documents”; infringe someone’s right to a fair trial; or cause “danger to public officials carrying out the law or their duties.”
Lam Socheat, director of the Advocacy and Policy Institute, welcomed the draft law’s progression to the Council of Ministers, but said he had asked to review the final draft early this year and has yet to receive it from the Information Ministry.
“We have applauded because we have been waiting for years,” Socheat said. “If the law is carried out by international standards, people can largely receive information.”
Civil society organizations have asked for the removal of the law’s Article 20.7, which says public institutions may withhold “other confidential information as stipulated in the prohibition provisions,” which NGOs have called “overly broad” language.
Civil society groups have also requested the deletion of Article 15.4, which requires 40 days to pass before a repeat request can be made for a piece of recently released information, as well as revisions to six other articles, including Article 25, which is meant to protect whistleblowers.
Sardar Umar Alam, Unesco’s representative in Cambodia, told CamboJA after the event that the resources put in place by Unesco and used by officials, civil society members and other local partners to develop the legislation, including setting up information request systems and media organizations providing comments on the draft law, has been worth the investment.
“We really are looking forward to this approval process to be finished. And more importantly, we have to go to the implementation of this law,” he said.
“Of course, if this law is passed and its implementation mechanism is put in place, people will get benefits. There’s no doubt about it,” Alam said, adding that similar laws in other countries have improved governance, transparency and economic accountability.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan declined to comment on the draft law, while Council of Ministers spokesperson Tith Sothea referred questions to Sea Mao, a secretary of state at the Council of Jurists. Mao said he was not authorized to speak with reporters and referred questions back to Sothea.
According to a U.N. report on press freedom in Cambodia from August, more than 80 percent of journalists surveyed said they had experienced surveillance and disproportionate or unnecessary restrictions, including in relation to access to information.