Malaysia: A Haze of Secrecy
The Malaysian public are being denied access to vital information about the environment. This is not only in breach of international standards, but also places both citizens and the environment at risk. Greater environmental openness would enable more effective participation in environmental stewardship and decision-making, promoting a truly public interest approach in terms of providing an appropriate balance between competing interests reducing corruption and breach of the rules, and leading to greater protection for the environment. It would also help individuals safeguard themselves against environmental hazards.
Malaysia is home to one of the world’s twelve areas of mega-biodiversity. Yet pollution and habitat loss – very often the consequence of big development projects – are taking their toll on local communities and are threatening the country’s abundant natural richness. The government’s approach has been characterised by undue secrecy and the withholding of information, seriously undermining the ability of citizens to participate in decision-making around issues which affect the environment.
Even where public health is directly and severely affected, the government has reacted with secrecy. The infamous haze which has for many years intermittently shrouded parts of Malaysia, including the capital, Kuala Lumpur, poses serious health risks to those living beneath its mist. Despite this, the Air Pollutant Index (API – the principal measurement of air pollution) was a State secret between the haze crisis of 1997/8 and that of August 2005. As a result, those affected were denied access to information which might have helped them to make important health-related decisions. In many countries, even where air quality problems are not serious, this information is available as a matter of course.
There is evidence that, in Malaysia, the environment is persistently compromised in the push for economic progress, although even this assessment is difficult given the paucity of available information. Furthermore, vital information which would enable the public to engage in public debate around the environment and realise their environmental rights is lacking. The biodiversity sector offers a good example of this.
The country’s immense biodiversity is being exploited through huge investments in biotechnology and yet the draft National Biotechnology Policy remains a secret, protected under the Official Secrets Act. Development activities such as building incinerators and dams, and urban expansion threaten local environments. Both urban and rural communities have tried to participate in decision-making around such projects, but they are often denied access to the information they need to engage in an informed and empowered manner on the issues involved. Government officials delay and refuse the release of information, and the reliability of even information that is released is sometimes dubious. Excessive costs, for example for obtaining Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), also serve to block access to information.
International law prescribes clear standards on the right to information and, in particular, the right to access environmental information. The importance of openness in underpinning democracy is reflected in strong statements about the need for comprehensive access to information legislation to give effect to the right to know.
The 1993 Rio Declaration recognises a right of access to environmental information and this is bolstered by provisions in international treaties both of a general nature and on specific topics, such as biological diversity, wetlands, endangered species and climate change. Despite this, Malaysia still has not adopted right to know legislation or even legislation with strong disclosure provisions relating to environmental information.
Instead, the harsh Official Secrets Act, which provides for unduly broad and discretionary withholding of information by officials, is relied upon on a regular basis to keep information out of the public realm. Campaigners have had some success in accessing information through progressive provisions in the Town and Country Planning Act, but its scope is limited. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules should provide a key mechanism for the public to access information about the environment. In practice, however, shortcomings in the EIA process have seriously undermined its ability to play this role.
Malaysia’s environment – from its immense natural richness and biodiversity to its endemic pollution and habitat loss – is a key part of the Malaysian people’s heritage. They must be empowered to protect and sustain their environment, thereby securing their own right to life. This Report sets forth the unequivocal role of access to information in enabling the Malaysian public to shape a path towards sustainable use of their incredible yet undoubtedly endangered natural environment.
Chapter One provides a general overview of the importance of access to environmental information. It details a number of examples which demonstrate how access to environmental information can secure the right to life by improving livelihoods and equipping people with the knowledge to cope in the event of environmental disasters. A contrast is provided in Chapter Two, which provides an overview of the state of the environment in Malaysia, as well as specific concerns regarding the lack of information about protected areas, waterways and logging. Chapter Three highlights international and regional standards on access to information generally, and then specifically to environmental information. The recommendations include the adoption of right to know legislation in Malaysia, in accordance with international standards. Once again, a contrast is provided in the next chapter, Chapter Four, which examines provisions on access to information, specifically environmental legislation, in Malaysia. National secrecy legislation is also assessed. Chapter Five provides an in-depth analysis of the system governing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) in Malaysia. The extent to which the EIA process facilitates access to environmental information is assessed both analytically and through a number of case studies. The chapter concludes with a review of the shortcomings of the EIA process in promoting transparency around major development projects. Four case studies illustrating ways in which communities in Malaysia have tried to access information about development projects likely to have an impact on their local environment are presented in Chapter Six. The chapter outlines both successful and unsuccessful attempts to access information and, in so doing, demonstrates the importance of access to information in enabling a community to voice their concerns about the impact of development projects. Chapter Seven looks at access to environmental information in four different areas: conservation and protected areas, State utilities, biotechnology and disasters. Some cases studies are presented and the analysis generally reveals excessive secrecy and an unwillingness to consult properly. In each case, arguments are presented as to the benefits of greater openness.
Summary of Recommendations
An access to information law which is consistent with international standards should be adopted and implemented as a matter of priority.
Secrecy legislation and legislation restricting the free flow of information should be reviewed for compliance with international standards and amended and/or repealed as necessary. In particular, the Printing Presses and Publications Act should be repealed and the Official Secrets Act should be substantially revised.
The proposed whistleblower legislation and Biosafety Bill, which should impose stringent disclosure requirements on both government research departments and private corporations, should be adopted as a matter of urgency.
Existing environmental legislation should be reviewed and information disclosure provisions should be added or strengthened.
Developing a culture of openness
Access to information legislation is an important first step in promoting openness, which must be backed up by measures to combat the culture of secrecy and to promote a culture of openness. Measures should include, among other things, the following:
Public officials should receive training on openness and the provision of information to the public.
Government departments should immediately establish mechanisms to facilitate sharing of information and to promote transparency, without waiting for access to information legislation to be adopted.
Information on contracts, demand and supply studies, and related matters should be made available to the public to ensure that politicians are held accountable for how natural and public resources are used.
The practice regarding Environmental Impact Assessment in Malaysia needs to be greatly improved if it is effectively to serve the public’s right to know. The following measures should, as a matter of urgency, be addressed:
EIA reports should be made public as soon as they are available and the cost of obtaining an EIA should not be prohibitive and, in particular, should not exceed the cost of producing or supplying a copy.
Civil society and the general public should be provided with effective notice of opportunities to participate in EIA processes, and provided with sufficient information to enable them to do so effectively.
Pollution and natural disasters
The public has a right to be informed of pollution and other environmental risks that can have a damaging impact on health. At a minimum, the following steps should be taken:
Information on what to do in case of an environmental emergency should be widely disseminated to the public on an ongoing and consistent basis in order that, in the event of such disasters, the public will be equipped to take the most appropriate form of action to safeguard their own and others’ safety.
In the event of an environmental disaster, the government should take all necessary measures to ensure that information and updates are disseminated as quickly and consistently as is possible. This will avoid people having to rely on rumours and to “second-guess” on the nature and outcome of the disaster. It will also facilitate the ability of the public to assist in the alleviation and resolution of the situation.
For a copy of the detailed report, go to http://www.article19.org/pdfs/publications/malaysia-a-haze-of-secrecy.pdf or get it here: malaysia-a-haze-of-secrecy.pdf
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