Sept. 28 is International Right to Know Day, a day to celebrate the right of citizens to access information held by public bodies (the right to information or RTI). Originally proclaimed on Sept. 28, 2002, International Right to Know Day is now formally recognized in countries around the world with activities ranging from conferences, prize-giving ceremonies, online discussions (the Centre for Law and Democracy will host a discussion on RTI this year vireddit.com/r/iama), and the like.
More generally, International Right to Know Day provides an opportunity to reflect on progress regarding the right to information, protected as a human right under international law, as well as the Constitution of Indonesia.
This year we have a major milestone to celebrate, the passage of the 100th right to information law globally, with the formal signing, on Sept. 18, of Paraguay’s Access to Information Act. With this law, over one half of the world’s countries, including of course Indonesia, covering some three-quarters of the world’s population, have put in place legal regimes guaranteeing the right to information.
How does Indonesia weigh up globally on this important human rights issue? The good news is that the legal framework in Indonesia, and in particular the Public Information Disclosure Act, No. 14 of 2008, is relatively strong. According to the RTI Rating (RTI-Rating.org) (a globally accepted methodology for assessing the strength of legal frameworks for RTI developed by the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe), Indonesia’s legal framework scores 101 points out of a possible total of 150, putting it in 28th position globally.
This is a very respectable position, which Indonesians can be proud of. Readers may be interested to know that Serbia tops the rating, with a score of 135 points, while nearby Austria languishes in last place, with just 37 points.
There is no single, accepted global measure of how well RTI laws are being implemented (the RTI Rating only measures legal provisions). However, anecdotal evidence suggests that Indonesia is not doing quite as well on this front.
The demand for information (i.e. by civil society and members of the public) remains somewhat weak, especially for a country the size of Indonesia, although this is starting to build.
Some organizations are increasingly making demands for information, but the overall buzz around the issue is far less animated than in countries like Bulgaria, India and Mexico, where there are almost daily newspaper reports on citizens using RTI to achieve social goals.
There is also room for improvement on the supply side (i.e. the measures taken by public bodies to be transparent). Many public bodies have not even appointed the Information Management and Documentation Officers (PPIDs) that Article 13 of Law No. 14 of 2008 requires them to. And even fewer have gone so far as to adopt internal rules — Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) — on this issue.
Indonesia is not alone in this, inasmuch as it is much easier to pass a law than to implement one and many countries struggle with the latter. Indeed, to some extent implementation is an ongoing challenge, even many years after the law has been passed. The Canadian law was passed over 30 years ago, but there are continuous efforts to improve implementation.
However, the Indonesian law came into effect in May 2010, nearly four and a half years ago, and so the various Indonesian stakeholders do need to make an effort to improve implementation. The imminent prospect of a new government, which is on record as being committed to becoming more open, provides an ideal opportunity for this.
It is up to local stakeholders to decide what they want to do, but some suggestions based on what has been successful in other countries may be helpful. Media outlets often file RTI requests to obtain information about medium- or longer-term stories they are working one.
Sometimes, not getting the information makes for just as good a story as getting it. Media outlets in some countries have, for example, made similar requests to different public bodies, and then produced great reports based on the different types of responses they received.
Civil society groups could also use the law more extensively. Practically every organization, regardless of the issues they work on, needs information held by government; this is certainly not an issue which is limited to groups working directly on RTI.
And, if the request is refused, one can always lodge an appeal with the Central or relevant Provincial Information Commission, which has the power to order public bodies to disclose information.
Finally, public bodies need to do their part, in the first place by appointing a PPID and adopting a standard operating procedure. These are, actually, formal legal obligations for all public bodies in Indonesia. In the short term, such measures may seem rather burdensome.
But experience in countries around the world has shown that, in the longer-term, being open leads to better relations with citizens and improves the effectiveness of public bodies. Surely this, along with the satisfaction of doing one’s bit to respect a fundamental human right, should be motivation enough.
Many observers, including this author, consider Indonesia to be the strongest democracy in Southeast Asia. With a little bit more effort, the right to information could be held up as a pillar of that democracy. Let’s work together to make that happen.
Happy International Right to Know Day!
The legal framework in Indonesia, and in particular the Public Information Disclosure Act, is relatively strong.
The writer is the executive director of the Center for Law and Democracy, an international human rights organization based in Halifax, Canada, which focuses, among other things, on the right to information.