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    Volume 9 Issue 4 | January 22, 2010|

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The Pledge to Open Up Information

Shamim Ahsan

As the present government completes one year in office a lot of stocktaking is going on. What about communication and information? How did the government fare in this field? There are a couple of bright spots for which the government may claim credit. But there are also issues where the government has exhibited profound nonchalance. At best one can hope that the government would seek to rectify its wrong moves in the remaining four years.

The most significant development in this sector has been the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) law. Much of the credit however goes to the Fakruddin-led caretaker government that promulgated the law as an ordinance in 2008. It was finally made into a law when the 9th parliament went into its first session in April 2009. Subsequently a three-member Information Commission was formed in July, but progress since then has been rather slow.

The government has a lot to do before people can begin to benefit from this piece of legislation. The biggest challenge now is to build the capacity of government bodies/organisations so that they can provide information when asked for. Information in most cases is still managed manually, and shifting from manual to digital storage facility would require both time and money in substantial amounts. Given the complexity and enormity of the task, it is important that the government start the process urgently. We are yet to come across any government move in this direction.

Another development that may tempt the government to claim credit is the abolition of provisions under the CrPC that allowed issuing arrest warrants against journalists, publishers and writers in defamation cases. In December the cabinet approved a draft bill to get rid of the provisions. It met a long-standing demand of journalists who have been perennially harassed by politicians, businessmen and influential individuals with considerable clout in the society. The job however remains half-done. Because, ideally, and as is the case in countries that claim to respect freedom of expression and press freedom, there should not be scope to press criminal charges against journalists (a scope that would continue to exist in Bangladesh). In ideal situations journalists, publishers and writers can be sued only under civil laws as opposed to criminal laws.

The government has also done things that are neither consonant with their election pledges nor compatible with their much-trumpeted slogan of bringing in change. In May the cabinet passed a bill titled "Terrestrial Telecast Facilities Preservation for Bangladesh Television Act 2009' (TTFP)", which basically reserves the terrestrial telecast facilities for BTV alone. Many of the government's detractors saw this move, (and they cannot be blamed for this), as the government's resolve to use the public-funded broadcaster as party-owned media, to publicise exaggerated-achievements and demonise its political opponents in keeping with the norm as old as Bangladesh itself. The assumption gains currency as the government chooses to keep silent about granting autonomy to the state-run Bangladesh Television and Bangladesh Betar, a pledge that featured all the election manifestoes of both AL and BNP over the last four elections. One hopes the government will make its position clear in the coming months, about autonomy of the state-run broadcasters.

Another notable failure in the first year involves the CR (CNG Refilling) which the party so prominently committed to in its election manifesto. The policy was there, so were applications seeking licenses to set up CR stations. All the government needed to do was to screen those applications and issue a certain number of licenses. The last 12 months proved to be inadequate for reasons only the government knows. One hopes the government would start issuing licenses for setting up CR stations early this year. Is it listening?


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