In the past 20 years, the global shift towards the free flow of information has swept Asia, particularly the desires and demands of civil society.
This report explains how far the region has come in recognising the right to information. It outlines the international and regional standards applicable to Asian states, and reviews the laws and their implementation in 11 countries.
Countries of all sizes, economic and political systems have adopted right to information legislation, ranging from India and China to the Maldives and the Cook Islands.
This is partly due to the difference in governments’ reasons for legislating. Some countries see the right to information as a fundamental part of democracy. Some see it as a useful tool to tackle corruption. Others regard it as a critical tool for development and to encourage participation.
In some countries, such as China and Japan, national legislation was born from local laws created by progressive local governments. In others, public demand was so significant that the national government legislated first.
Right to information legislation in Asia includes a huge cross sample in regards to quality, from the best in the world to the worst. Implementation and demand also vary dramatically from country to country.
Some Asian countries, such as India and Indonesia, lead the world in right to information legislation. Such countries have created progressive mechanisms for access and enforcement.
Some, such as Japan and Thailand, were early adopters and leaders in the right to information, but have now got significantly outdated legislation that desperately need updating.
Others, such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka, have been discussing, promising and drafting right to information laws for many years, but still hold out against them.
Finally, there are those like Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam which retain a strong grip on government-held information, regarding it as government property and refusing to empower the people to access it.
Legislating alone is not enough though. Implementation is vital and civil society engagement and empowerment is key.
In India, which has one of the world’s best laws, civil society regularly uses the right to information to get their other rights fulfilled. In Indonesia, civil society’s use of the right to information is just starting to take off.
Implementation in other countries remains problematic. Transparency during disasters has been particularly poor, from Japan’s nuclear meltdown and the following cover-up, to the Nepali government’s response to the 2015 earthquake.
Across South and Southeast Asia, information on development issues and the aid being allocated to solve them has also been generally lacking too.
Secrecy in the name of national security has also proven a barrier to the free flow of information across Asia. Archaic colonial as well as more modern laws exist region-wide, such as on sedition in Malaysia or Official Secrets in India, or “state security” as in China and Japan.
In some countries, public awareness of the law is low and the government does little to publicise the right to information. Officials often resist all attempts to share information. Violence towards those who request information has increased significantly, with several information requesters being killed for their efforts to establish the truth.
Despite the lack of awareness of the law, demand for information has increased more generally, spurred on by civil society’s use of digital technologies. Governments are increasingly forced into defending themselves, and countries such as Japan and South Korea have responded with investment in ICT-based solutions to make information easily accessible by the masses.
Open Data initiatives relating to budgets, environmental hazards and other important information have been established to help civil society. Regional efforts are also growing, such as the E-ASEAN Framework Agreement, which contemplates the need to use ICTs to enhance transparency.
Asian countries are at a critical point in time. The pressure by Asian governments to increase national security, prevent terrorism and hide corruption has never been higher.
However, civil society demands for more and deeper participation in their government and in governance has increased in parallel to the government crackdown, encouraged by the new opportunities available to talk, share and campaign online.