TWO out of three posts at the Bangladesh Information Commission are lying vacant for the past month. The government knew they were falling vacant when information commissioners Sadeka Halim and MA Taher finished their tenure. But there has been little forward planning and no seamless transition. Ironically there little or no information forthcoming about how the government is going about selecting the next guardians of transparency. The Right to Information Forum a collective of civil society organisations has been raising pertinent questions about the whole selection process and has urged government to “appoint capable, credible and neutral persons to the vacant posts of information commissioners as soon as possible to avoid any disruption in the commission's activities”.
This year's selection of Commissions seems doomed to follow the earlier precedent of secrecy. This always raises eyebrows and courts criticism about favorites being appointed through patronage. This suspicion even if untrue weakens public trust in the Commission. Just 5 years old the relatively new institution requires all the credibility it can get in order to put down strong foundations of public trust that will enable this vital mechanism to bring about transparency in government. Sadly Bangladesh's biggest neighbor provides it a bad example to follow. India does not have an open process. As a result India's many information commissions have routinely become comfortable perches for retired civil servants – often with long experience keeping government information close rather than tending toward championing transparency. The Bangladesh law requires information commissioners to be chosen from among “law, justice, journalism, education, science, technology, information, social service, management or public administration.” But the 'public administration category is broad enough to allow packing the Commission with a predominance of old civil servants. Closed door processes make bad choices that much easier.
But the neighborhood offers plenty of good practice as well. Indonesia appoints its information commissioners in the most transparent and participatory way. A list of potential members for the Information Committee is published and made available to the public. The public can then express their opinions about the potential members with reasons. Those reasons are taken into consideration and finally the Parliament of the Republic of Indonesia selects the members of the Central Information Committee who are then officially appointed by the President of Indonesia.
In the Maldives the post for information commissioner is advertised and qualified people can apply or their names can be suggested by others. The President picks out three names of qualified candidates and sends it out to the Majlis (Maldivian Parliament). The President also forwards the comprehensive list of all the respondents who answered the public announcement to the Majlis. The President would then appoint that person as Information Commission whose name is passed by majority in the Majlis. So there are checks and balances and transparency of process. Bangladesh on the other hand violates all forms of public consultation or transparency in the selection process of Information Commission. It depends on a very loosely formed selection committee comprising of five members for recommending two names against each vacant names. In order to gain respect and credibility for the institution among the citizens of Bangladesh it is extremely important for the Information Commission to mandatorily disclose the selection process.
The government in order to set example for smooth functioning of the Information Commission should look into the three bottlenecks raised in this article. Firstly to immediately start the process of appointing Information Commissioners, secondly to make the process more participatory and transparent for the public and lastly efforts should be made bring people with expertise from various fields of knowledge. Every moment of governance signals the future. It can be pregnant with possibility or poisoned with the seeds of its own destruction. Transparency in governance is vital to Bangladesh's democracy, to its economic advancement to building its stature in the world. Strong institutions that command public respect increase the possibility of success. Delay in choosing commissioners signals the government's lack of priority for the commissions work. The closed process signals it does not trust the participation of its people and prefers the safety of limiting knowledge in order to control who finally adjudicates on questions where government is inevitably the defending party. A bold shift in the method of choosing commissioners will bring the government popular admiration and a strong commission.
The writer is Project Officer, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.