Authorities ordered to increase public access to information

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2007, 12:00am

A groundbreaking measure in the interest of greater transparency is the way analysts are describing a new State Council regulation ordering authorities at all levels to grant public requests for information.

The regulation, signed by Premier Wen Jiabao on April 5 but released only yesterday, urges government departments at all levels to release information that 'affects the immediate interests of individuals and groups' or 'should be known by the masses'.

It will come into effect on May 1 next year.

State Council legislative office vice-director Zhang Qiong said that with the regulation the government hoped to 'safeguard the rights of citizens, corporations and other organisations to acquire information according to the law, enhance the transparency of the government's work and create a society of harmony'.

The regulation will require administrations to respond within 20 days to requests from the public for information about government finances, economic plans, statistics, land seizures and housing demolitions, public emergencies, investigations into environmental protection and other policies.

To ensure the rule is effectively implemented, the State Council will also set up a series of assessment and monitoring systems to gauge compliance with the official obligations for information and allow citizens to sue or lodge complaints against parties who fail to meet the demands.

The State Council has also urged governments at various levels to prepare a regularly updated list of information available to the public, and release the material through various media, including newspapers and the internet. In addition, governments have to improve the public's access to information at libraries and other community venues.

Mr Zhang said the measures were aimed at preventing corruption at its root. 'The principle of government openness about information is an important way to boost socialist democracy, government transparency and rule by law.'

But he said secrecy provisions would apply to prevent improper disclosure of information related to privacy, commercial confidentiality and state secrets. Mr Zhang said information 'which might endanger state security, public and economic security and infringe the legal rights of citizens, corporations and other organisations' would not be released.

Commentators said the regulation was a landmark gesture to bring government in line with international conventions by changing its long-standing negative attitude to public demands for access to information.

Zhan Jiang, a professor and media analyst at the China Youth University for Political Sciences, said: 'This rule shows for the first time that the government is obliged to be open to the public and grant citizens the legal right to accuse governments of neglecting to share information.

'Even though there are plenty of restrictions, it's promising to see that the public can get access to the information that they have not been able to acquire in the past.'

In recent years, the central government has shown signs of wanting to expand access to information. For example, it recently instructed grass-roots agencies to set up official websites, a move that would have been unheard of 10 years ago.

Guo Songmin , who writes a highly regarded blog on legal issues, wrote that 'after nearly three decades of market-oriented reform, the government realises that only by fully sharing information can it prevent interest groups from benefiting at the expense of the public'.