Contributed by Yaw Ern Nian, Member, Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee, with photos by Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, Executive Officer, and Adi Irman, Administrative Assistant, Bar Council
Our freedom of speech is enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. That being said, what about our right to access public information? Can restrictive legislation such as the Official Secrets Act 1972 (“OSA”), Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Sedition Act 1949 and Internal Security Act 1960 be justified? In respect of national security, do we have the right to know? Ronald Reagan, a former President of the United States of America, is famously quoted as having said, “Information is the oxygen of the modern age”.
To address these questions, the Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee (“BCCLC”), in collaboration with The Nut Graph and with the support of Konrad–Adenauer–Stiftung, held a forum entitled “MPs in Conversation: Freedom of Information – Your Right to Know?” at 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm, at the Bar Council Auditorium, on 29 July 2011 (Friday). The event, the first in a series of public fora featuring Members of Parliament and commentators, was held in conjunction with the release of The Nut Graph’s “Understanding the Dewan Rakyat” book in March 2011. It was attended by more than 100 participants.
Masjaliza Hamzah, Executive Director of Centre for Independent Journalism, moderated that forum, which started off with a presentation by Professor Abu Bakar b Munir on the general situation of freedom of information around the world. Professor Abu Bakar b Munir’s presentation was followed by a speech by Charles Santiago, Member of Parliament for Klang and a longtime advocate of freedom of information legislation. Charles Santiago insisted that the right to information had to be institutionalised; this, in his opinion, would significantly tackle the problem of corruption. He emphasised that there should not be a culture of secrecy, and explained that matters of public interest, such as water concession agreements, simply could not be covered by the OSA.
The last speaker of the forum was Khairy Jamaluddin, United Malays National Organisation Youth Chief and Member of Parliament for Rembau. Although he declared his support for freedom of information legislation, he reminded the audience that safeguards were needed to protect national security in matters relating to defence. According to him, matters such as the exact specifications of tanks, systems and missiles used should not be discussed in Parliament.
The speeches were followed by a vibrant question–and–answer session that enabled speakers to interact with members of the audience on a wide range of topics, which were not limited to the freedom of information. Hence, it was truly a case of “MPs in Conversation”!