Open information law will be overhauled, judge says
Almost half of all lawsuits applying for the release of government-held information have been rejected by mainland courts in the three years since legislation meant to give access came into force, according to a senior judge who helped draft the law.
Li Guangyu, a Supreme People's Court judge and deputy head of the court's executive office, was quoted in mainland media as saying the Regulations on Open Government Information were being revised to give clarification on matters that were forming a barrier to the release of government materials.
Much of the challenge to greater public access to government information centres around conflicts with prevailing legislation, such as the State Secrets Law, coupled with a deep-rooted tradition of government secrecy and lack of resources to meet information request demands.
Li said a large number of the 'several hundred' responses to a public consultation the top legal body was currently holding on the issues - due to close tomorrow - had raised questions about article 11 of the regulations. The article lists reasons state bodies can give to say a piece of information 'is not classified as [suitable for] being made public'.
The legislation stated information could be kept secret if government bodies demonstrated its release could have a negative impact on national security, public safety or public stability, among other issues, but Li said these lacked a clear definition.
Li said the drafting committee had attempted to produce a concrete classification, but the results proved 'this is a worldwide problem'.
The judge said that both the government and courts needed to adopt a 'cautious approach' to the use of the 'stability' get-out clause, and it must not be used as an 'excuse'.
China Youth Daily reported that 'insufficient public transparency' about information relating to 'major sudden occurrences and incidents [that become] hot topics' had been a source of criticism and suspicion in recent years.
Government bodies have at times gone to great lengths to withhold information about accidents and disturbances, such as the number of students killed in schools that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and details related to the buildings' construction.
More recently, it remains unclear when the investigation into the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash, which claimed 40 lives in July, will make its findings public - despite initial promises that they would be delivered in mid-September.
'Branches of government have a duty to publish government information of their own accord, but what can be done if they do not actively release government information according to the demands of legal regulations?' Li said to China Youth Daily. He added that one option would be for individuals to go through the courts to obtain an order for information to be released. 'This problem has been a big headache for us during the drafting process.'
However, he understood that courts 'refused to handle' some 30 per cent of cases, and still more were turned down before going to court.
'Adding these two categories together it comes to roughly half [of cases],' he said.
The proportion of the mainland public who believe they have the right to access government information, according to a newspaper survey