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Friday, May 7, 1999

Public must mold info-disclosure system to needs


Staff writer

When the Diet passed a bill Friday to give the public access to state documents, Japan took a significant democratic step forward, giving citizens a tool to check what their government has done and to voice their views.

But at the same time, the public is left with the crucial task of deciding how to make use of the tool.

Observers stress that the aim of the law, to create a better government, will be achieved only if people voice opinions based on the information they request in a responsible manner.

"An information-disclosure system is merely a point where we start to realize a real democratic state," said lawyer Tsutomu Shimizu, an advocate of the freedom-of- information campaign.

The law comes as more people realize the flaws of the current system, in which administrative matters have been left to the bureaucrats and a few politicians, he said.

The legislation comes nearly 20 years after some local governments started adopting similar ordinances and advocates began pushing for national-level freedom-of- information legislation.

The bill was drawn up by the Management and Coordination Agency after years of debate involving the public and political parties. It was submitted to the Diet in March 1998.

Analysts say the law is one of the fruits of several coalition governments that held power after the Liberal Democratic Party's 38 years of monopolizing the administration ended.

If the LDP had continued to rule, they say, it would have taken much more time to create the new law.

The law allows any individual, Japanese or foreign, to examine administrative information upon request, including data that have been recorded on magnetic tape, floppy disk or any other electronic medium.

During Lower House discussions on the bill over the past year, opposition parties demanded a number of revisions, including that semigovernmental corporations also be made subject to information disclosure.

The revised bill does not cover semigovernmental corporations, but it states that whether to subject them to the law will be considered two years after the disclosure law is enacted.

In Upper House deliberations, one of the biggest issues was if the Naha District Court in Okinawa Prefecture would be added to a list of district courts where citizens would be allowed to file suits against the central government if their info-disclosure requests are rejected.

The original bill had been drafted in a way to allow lawsuits to be filed only in Tokyo, drawing criticism that that would make filing suits difficult for citizens living far from the capital.

Opposition parties in the upper chamber strongly demanded that Naha be included in the revised bill, which allows suits to be filed in seven other district courts -- Sapporo, Sendai, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture.

Because the LDP's coalition with its junior partner, the Liberal Party, is still short of a majority in the Upper House, compromises had to be made.

After more than a month of negotiations, they finally compromised last week to add another revision to the bill calling for the list of eligible courts to be re-examined four years after the law is enacted.

Muneyuki Shindo, professor of administrative science at Rikkyo University, said the two points -- the exemption of semigovernmental corporations and the failure to include the Naha District Court on the list -- are the biggest defects of the new law.

"People living in Okinawa must go to Fukuoka to file a lawsuit. Don't you think this is very inconvenient?" he asked, noting such inconvenience could lead to less frequent calls for information disclosure.

Considering their administrative nature, semigovernmental corporations should be covered by the law if its information disclosure goal is to be achieved, Shindo said.

The preparation by government agencies to disclose their documents, including making a list of the documents they hold, is another key to success of the new system, which will take effect as early as April 2001.

But such preparations do not seem to be ready yet.

According to a recent survey by a national daily, only 13 of 20 government ministries and agencies led by Cabinet ministers have started sorting out their documents.

The success of the system will depend heavily on whether bureaucrats, as well as citizens, can change their concept of government information, lawyer Shimizu said. "It depends on whether they can realize that government information belongs to the public," he said.



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