UNESCO supports research to advance freedom of information in Southeast Asia

Malou Mangahas, Executive Director of PCIJ, and Karol Ilagan, PCIJ's Research Director, respond to questions during the roundtable. - © SEAPA

UNESCO is contributing to a research project coordinated by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), which will lead to a book assessing the current status of freedom of information (FOI) in Southeast Asia and highlighting the related challenges. The initiative, which is also being supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Open Society Foundations, builds on the 2001 publication, The Right to Know: Access to Information in Southeast Asia. The new book will update the previous edition, in light of the past decade’s FOI-related developments in the region.

Among the countries in Southeast Asia, only Indonesia and Thailand have a national FOI law. At the sub-national level, the Malaysian state of Selangor has also enacted a law aiming to guarantee the right to information. While there are countries where provisions for freedom of information are included within national press laws (e.g. Cambodia and Laos) and others where this right is recognized constitutionally (e.g. the Philippines), specific legislation is needed to fully guarantee freedom of information. There also exist a number of countries in Southeast Asia where there is a draft FOI law, or where efforts towards drafting one are underway (e.g. Vietnam). As shown by the experiences in Southeast Asia, however, challenges do not end with the passing of a freedom of information law, given that implementation often runs into notable difficulties. These are often related to the insufficient allocation of funds, procedural hurdles, a lack of culture of information sharing among public servants, and the low level of awareness and demand for government-held information among the general public.

As a first step towards the development of the envisioned publication focusing on freedom of information, SEAPA and PCIJ brought together a team of research/writers, comprised of academics, and representatives of media freedom organizations and institutes promoting freedom of information in different Southeast Asian countries, for a roundtable held on 29 and 30 September 2011 in Bangkok. The objective was to discuss a common methodology and platform that will guide the soon-to-be launched research stage.

The project aims to cover all Southeast Asian countries in different phases, initially focusing on Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Conducted over several months, including all relevant sectors and accompanied by a number of open forums focused on FOI, the research process will result in a publication contributing to advocacy, knowledge sharing and capacity building on freedom of information. The book will represent a useful resource not only for journalists, academics and civil society organizations, but also for governments, reminding them about the importance of this right and providing them with an assessment of achievements and shortcomings in relation to it. In so doing, the initiative will fundamentally foster people’s empowerment and government’s transparency, accountability and responsiveness to citizens’ needs.

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