THE haphazard release of the Penan Task Force report last week is symptomatic of a glaring lack of access, as a rule, to publicly funded government information.
The report, which confirmed the rape and sexual abuse of Penan women and girls, was publicly unavailable for months despite repeated calls by advocacy groups for it to be released. After a string of unanswered calls and letters, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Wanita chief Zuraida Kamaruddin was surprisingly informed when she visited the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry on 8 Sept 2009 that the report could be collected.
Shahrizat (Pic courtesy of theSun) Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil told the press on 10 Sept during a buka puasa event in Kuala Lumpur that the report had actually been approved by the cabinet in May 2009, making it a public document since. “Anyone who wants to have a look can come… [but] because there was a special request, that’s why we put it on the website,” she said.
But the minister’s comments contradict her earlier remarks on the matter and her ministry’s actions in May when they refused to comment on when the report would be made public.
“The report was with us all the while, but it was on the website later on,” said Women’s Development Department Director-General Datuk Dr Noorul Ainur Mohd Nur at the same buka puasa event.
When reminded that The Nut Graph was unable to obtain the report during an investigative visit to her office on 21 Aug, Noorul conceded that it was put on the website only thereafter. However, the ministry made no attempt to alert the public or the media about the report’s availability. It was only because PKR’s Zuraida released the report to others that the media got a copy of it.
Additionally, regardless of whether or not the report was considered public after May 2009, no member of the public has been able to get hold of a copy until 8 Sept. This leaves a trail of unanswered questions.
Why should cabinet have to approve the release of a government-commissioned task force report?
Considering the seriousness of the crimes, shouldn’t the ministry have made this report public much earlier, instead of nearly a year after reports surfaced that the Penan were being violated?
Why didn’t the ministry call a press conference to discuss the report’s findings at the very start, instead of only pledging to release it to “interested parties” who visited the ministry?
A Penan mother and child (Pic courtesy of Sofiyah Israa @ Flickr)
Need for FOI legislation
Malaysia has no Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation which would guarantee the public a government response every time a request is made for information. In the UK, for example, any person may ask a public authority whether it has the information requested, and if so, have the information communicated to him or her. Upon receiving such a request, the public authority must reply by the 20th working day.
In the absence of such a formal mechanism in Malaysia, the release of information is left entirely in the hands of government officials.
This holds public information hostage to government officials or ministers’ personal views on what information deserves to be published, or whether or not there is enough public outcry to prod them into being accountable. This is far from satisfactory if public interest is to be served.
Personal feelings and public popularity are not appropriate yardsticks to determine whether or not the public should have access to information that may affect their lives and livelihoods. Clear systems of accountability are needed to ensure that any interested party may request for information from the government and receive a reply within a reasonable time.
Additionally, the tyranny of the majority should have no place in determining the release of information.
“Only less than 3% [of the Penan] are still nomadic … And it is this 3% that the negative NGOs speak up for. Is this a fair representation when we have another 97% of Penan who have settled down?” Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Tan Sri Alfred Jabu was reported to have said upon hearing of the contents of the task force report.
“They (the negative NGOs) are living off the misery of the few, and manufactured lies. This is what we must fight,” he added in a Borneo Post report.
Headline of the Borneo Post report, published 12 Sept But what is the deputy chief minister saying? The equation he’s making seems to be that since the report concerns a small portion of an indigenous group in Sarawak who are of lower socioeconomic status, their problems shouldn’t receive so much attention.
It is also telling that no government official has named any of the logging companies allegedly involved in committing the crimes against the Penan girls and women. The ministry’s Dr Noorul told The Nut Graph that it would be “better to speak to the police”. The police, however, have said they have insufficient information on the case, and that they lacked funds to conduct more investigations.
It almost seems that the logging companies are receiving more protection compared with the Penan.
Remember Canny Ong?
Most Malaysians would recall the abduction, rape and murder of Canny Ong in 2003. The search for Canny Ong’s abductor was front-page news for weeks. A massive hunt was launched to identify suspects and apprehend her murderer. The person convicted of her murder lost his final appeal to the Federal Court in March 2009, and faces the death sentence.
That heinous crime involved one person. The allegations in the task force report concern the sexual violation of an entire community of women and girls who are poor, isolated and marginalised. Shouldn’t the defenceless receive equal protection from the state, and coverage from the media, if not more?
It is time for the government to pass a FOI Act and stop hiding behind archaic legislation such as the Official Secrets Act. The public should not have to depend on ministers’ goodwill to declassify government documents before they can be viewed. The supply of available information to the public should be the rule rather than exception. Only then can the rights of all Malaysians, including minorities such as the Penan, be properly protected.
The Nut Graph needs your support