Right to Information Bill
This is partly because the government is very secretive and many public officials believe that the information they keep on budgets, policies, and projects is secret. Myanmar even has a law criminalising people who “disturb” public officials by asking questions.
The right to information says that information held by the government is the property of the people and that people have a right to access that information.
If Myanmar had a right to information law, people would be able to ask public officials for different kinds of information that would help them reduce corruption and increase the public’s ability to hold the government accountable.
The USDP government proposed a Right to Information Bill in 2016 just before the NLD took power.
The right to information is included in the Sustainable Development Goals for each country to aim for to achieve development. The right to information includes a number of principles:
- Presumption of disclosure – the government must disclose everything except in very limited exceptions
- Proactive disclosure – the government must actively disclose information regardless of whether they are asked
- Promote openness - the government must change its policies and practices to create a culture of openness and ending government secrecy, this includes access to the meetings of public bodies
- Limited exceptions –the government must define only very limited exceptions to access to information according to the principle of ‘harm’, and there should be a public interest test
- Fast and fair processes – the government should answer any requests for information in a fast and fair way, and there should be a mechanism for appeals.
- Cheap processes – the government should ensure that people are not dissuaded from asking for information because of high costs
- Disclosure takes precedence – the government should amend any laws that contradict disclosure, and the courts should interpret the laws with disclosure taking precedence
- Protect whistleblowers – the government should protect whistleblowers who release information about wrongdoing and corruption.
A right to information law is the best way to make sure these principles are followed by government. But a government can also begin to implement many of these principles while making a law. For example, the government can promote a culture of openness inside, and can easily begin to proactively disclose information.
2016 Right to Information Bill
The Right to Information Bill was proposed by the USDP government in 2016 a few weeks before the NLD government took power.
The Bill would have created a new culture of openness in the Myanmar government. It would have partially passed principles 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 because it applied to all public bodies, promoted proactive disclosure, punished secretive public officials, created a fast process, and took precedence over other laws.
Unfortunately the Bill also included some big weaknesses.
- It failed principle 1 as it limited the right to information to citizens only. Many people in Myanmar do not have citizenship cards for different reasons, and this would discriminate against them.
- It failed principle 3 as it includes the old colonial crime of disturbing public officials. This has been used in Myanmar by public officials being asked questions by journalists and human rights defenders.
- It failed principle 4 as it had broad and unclear exemptions. For example, it included national security but did not define it. It also protected prominent people which could be easily misused to hide corruption and wrongdoing.
- It failed principle 5 as it did not include an appeals body like an information commission. Information Commissions are independent and are not slow and expensive like Myanmar courts.
- It failed principle 6 as it had no limit on what public officials can charge for information.