New Info Act Will be Faster. But Will it Shine More Light?

An undated file photo of Prawit Wongsuwan and his entourage in Hawaii. Image: Matichon

BANGKOK — It took four months before Khaosod English got the names of those who went on a controversial, Defense Ministry tour to Hawaii, but drafters of the new Public Information Act say it will cut response times down to 15 days.

That was one feature touted Wednesday by the junta-appointed reform assembly as it rolled out its efforts to improve access to public information held by the government. The body is still reviewing the bill, and questions remain how much it will upgrade the efficiency of the 1997 law it will replace.

The draft presented at the parliament more broadly defines “public information” as any kind of information obtained from a government resource for public benefit, whether from government or personal records.

In one notable improvement, the draft specifies how officials must make the information available, including mandatory publishing on government websites.

In a bureaucracy where many processes seem to take 60 to 90 days, the bill would require officials satisfy requests within 15 days. They can request extensions, but not for more than 30 days.

The draft, however, still holds the same exceptions for information exempted from disclosure, such as anything deemed potentially harmful to the monarchy, national security or international relations.

The vague definition of “national security” was a main concern of members of the public attending Wednesday’s discussion, including a speaker from an investigative journalism organization.

“As we have seen, national security is often brought up as an excuse for not revealing information,” Sarinee Achavanuntakul of ThaiPublica said.

Another major concern, raised by a Supreme Administrative Court judge, was that the committee which will handle requests might have a built-in conflict of interest.

As Changthong Opassiriwit pointed out, the Public Information Committee would handle information requests, be responsible for petitioners’ complaints and also decide if agencies must disclose information they deem “confidential.”

He said it might pose a problem and questioned whether a separate, independent committee should be responsible for forcing action.

Speaking as one of the drafters, steering subcommittee member Somchart Jesrichai said the law was still being tuned. He said he could not yet give a timeline for when it would replace the 1997 Official Information  Act as law, but assured more public hearings would be held.