Categorised | Columns

Hiding behind “secrets”

Lower half of child's face, finger raised to her lips to shush the viewer
Shhhhh… (© Paul Brunskill / sxc.hu)

“YOU cannot quote me…I’ve discussed with my superior, we’ve decided that the progress is slow, so we don’t think it’s a good time to publicise it now, why don’t you write on other issues?”

That was the response from an officer from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development after I finally managed to reach her on the phone. For several weeks, I had tried to reach her at the ministry but she was either in a meeting or on leave.

Still, when we finally spoke, and I explained that I was a journalist, she was kind enough to give me the information I needed about the progress of gender budgeting in Malaysia. Gender budgeting, also known as gender budget analysis, helps to lower the gender gap in government budgets by analysing existing government policies and budgets to ensure women’s and men’s needs are met equitably.

But my euphoria at landing a story didn’t last long. When I e-mailed a fact and quote check to her, in accordance with The Nut Graph‘s editorial policy, she got cold feet and couldn’t be contacted for the next two weeks.

It was after numerous phone calls that I eventually got hold of the officer again. This was when she told me not to report on the issue of gender budgeting, as innocuous as it was, and asked me to go investigate another issue instead. The sad truth is that she is not the only government officer who will display a lack of respect to citizen’s right to information.

Why shouldn’t Malaysians know about the progress of the gender budgeting project especially after it had been announced by the minister, and public funds had been used to execute it?

Indeed, the ministry launched the pilot project on gender budgeting with the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme back in 2003. Five pilot ministries took part in the project and a manual on gender budgeting was also published upon the project’s completion in 2006.

However, since then, there have been no subsequent reports about how successful the project was, and The Nut Graph was keen to find out just so that there could be some accounting of previous projects launched by the government.

But no way was the ministry going to be held accountable if the officer’s remarks were anything to go by. Even on a subject that wasn’t remotely “sensitive” or contentious.

My questions are these: Does the government have the right to decide if they would like to publicise an issue? Should government officers be able to tell the media what it should or shouldn’t highlight? Isn’t it the public’s right to know where and how public funds are being spent?

National security?

If “gender budgeting” were a national security issue, where the information I reported on would allow terrorists to infiltrate our country to blow up the KLIA or Putrajaya, then yes, I believe the government has valid reasons to keep the information secret.

But it seems that the reason the ministry officer didn’t want to be publicly quoted for my story was because it would reflect badly on the government’s efficiency.

This then is the problem with having a culture of secrecy in the Malaysian administration, made possible and entrenched because we have laws such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

Logo of a firefly emitting lightrays from its rear end
From Freedom of Information campaign (© CIJMalaysia.org)

Isn’t it obvious we need to urgently replace the OSA with a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act? It’s only if we had an FOI Act that the government can be compelled to be transparent and accountable to tax payers on matters that do not jeopardise national security (where it is the courts, and not the executive, who would define a national security).

Without an FOI Act, it is totally at the discretion of ministers and government officers to disclose information to the media or to the public. And where it might be inconvenient to do so, we can bet the information will not be forthcoming. Just look at how the Penan task force report has still yet to be made public.

Without an FOI Act, how can the rakyat evaluate our government’s performance and efficiency?

Besides, if it was already so difficult for the media to obtain information and publicise an issue such as gender budgeting, how much more difficult would it be for larger or “sensitive” issues? AP permits and oil royalties, anyone? Or how about the murder of a Mongolian translator? Or deaths in police detention?

“Soon” means “never”

Another stumbling block I encountered during my internship at The Nut Graph was with the Federal Land Department (Felda).

Oil palm plantation
Oil palm plantation (© F3rn4nd0 / Wiki Commons)

On 21 May 2009, environmental network Ecological Internet claimed in a press release that Felda had denied having any plans to develop an oil palm cultivation project together with a Brazilian company in Tefe, Brazil.

Ecological Internet was concerned that the project would threaten the Amazon rainforest.

After several attempts, I finally reached the Felda public relations officer who had e-mailed Ecological Internet to deny Felda’s plans. She confirmed that the project, which was announced by Datuk Seri Najib Razak and the Brazilian ambassador to Malaysia, had been cancelled. But she refused to explain why or to comment further.

Instead she directed me to the Felda Holdings group managing director, and forwarded my e-mail to the director’s press secretary.  I rang the press secretary several times to get an answer. The response was usually, “Datuk is in a meeting, I’ll get him to get back to you as soon as possible.”

What she left unsaid was: “Ahem, ‘as soon as possible’ means ‘never’.”

There are a whole host of other issues far more important than gender budgeting and a cancelled Felda project in Brazil, that’s for certain. But without an FOI, it is near impossible to get to the bottom of an issue without a lot of resources being spent fighting an over-crusted bureaucracy.

So, will prime minister Najib’s administration replace the OSA with an FOI Act? Will our government and its ministries and agencies be more open and accountable? When will citizens be able to find out what our government is doing without having to wait for it to be convenient before we will be told?

When?

Do you think Najib might answer if I asked? Favicon


Gan Pei Ling wishes everyone, not just the media and some segment of the public, would realise the importance of access to information, and reclaim their right to it.

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4 Responses to “Hiding behind “secrets””

  1. Gayathry says:

    Yes, imagine if the media had such problems, what would ordinary folks have to endure to get information?

    One the one hand it is important to change our value system (quoting my friend Ong Boon Keong) to one that demands and appreciates openness and not secrecy. On the other, we need to legislate these practices to ensure it becomes difficult for governments to justify their unchecked control of information. And so that these bosses cannot hide behind the excuses of “gone for meeting”, “having coffee”, “come back in two weeks” …

  2. Nicholas Aw says:

    I absolutely agree with the writer’s opinion regarding the government’s reluctance in allowing access to information. Obviously, many government officers are not willing to divulge information for fear of the Official Secrets Act.

    I believe that information (except that which threatens national security) should be made available to the public. Only in this way will there be trust and transparency. Being a journalist, it frustrates the writer in wanting to write about a particular issue when she is not privileged to the necessary information.

    The only way is making our voices heard through the politicians both in government and opposition so that a motion is tabled in Parliament to introduce a new law – the Freedom of Information Act.

  3. victor says:

    I wholely support the Freedom of Information Act. Too often have we heard that the government promises a project, yet 10 years later there is not a word, and the minister has either retired/resigned/switched party/died.

    The situations you described above are all features of a large, lumbering bureaucracy. In a bureaucracy, responsibility keeps getting pushed around, no one is accountable, and things take forever to accomplish.

    I feel that Pakatan Rakyat should stop wasting their time asking in Parliament about the progress of projects, for statistics, and for accountability.

    All it needs to do is push for a Freedom of Information Act, where the people, journalists, anyone can get the information they require.

    Gan Pei Ling, I agree completely with you that we need this act to effect changes in the government. Selangor is taking the first step to enact this act, but to be effective, it needs to be implemented on a national level.

    I only hope that Pakatan Rakyat can put this in the forefront of their agenda.

  4. victor says:

    To follow up my earlier comment,

    The FOI act should also be supplemented by:

    1. The ombud (complaints investigation) system
    2. An online Freedom of Information website
    3. An agency to handle FOI requests
    4. A panel comprising eminent experts who shall preside on cases where FOI requests are denied.


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