In the Global Right to Information Rating conducted by Access Info Europe (AIE) and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), Bangladesh scored 107 out of 150 points. The scoring was weighed by evaluating some features of the Right to Information Act including access of the law, its scope, requesting procedures, exceptions therein, appeals, sanctions and promotional measures. With all these, Bangladesh stands 24th position whereas its neighbours like Sri Lanka possess 3rd rank and Indian stands at 5th. Though Bangladesh enacted the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2009 to guarantee the opportunity of seeking information as of right, the gradual decrease of applicants' number in seeking information from the Information Commission is a major challenge for Bangladesh towards ensuring good governance (see, Md. Mostafa Hosain, 'The RTI Mechanism: Issues of public interest and time duration', The Daily Star, 27 February 2018). One of the substantial reasons is perhaps the non-inclusion of private bodies such as private banks and other financial institutions within the scope of the RTI mechanism under the Act.
The present writing investigates scope of the Right to Information Act 2009 in relation to private institutions. The extent of encroaching RTI towards private body is limited to categories specified in section 2(b)(iv), (v) and (vi) of the Act. According to section 2(b)(iv), “authority” includes “any private organisation or institution run by government financing or with aid in grant from the government fund”, while as per section 2(b)(v), it may be “any private organisation or institution run by foreign aid in grant”. In the similar line, organisations even if private, undertaking pubic functions are also bound to provide information (section 2(b)(vi)). So, the scope of the Act is limited to private organisations or NGOs which are run by government aid, finance, or foreign aid or finance.
The crucial point is whether other private bodies are bound to provide information or not. This has been reported in January 2014 in one national daily newspaper that referred to the opinion of one of the spokespersons of the Information Commission of Bangladesh asserting that private banks are also bound to disclose information under the RTI Act. This point was raised against Rajshahi branch of the First Security Islami Bank which shown unwillingness to provide information. When the matter was forwarded before the Commission, it sought opinion of law ministry and the later one took the position that all private banks are “information providing unit” and “information providing authorities” like public banks. This position has not been sustained later on and the Commission was of the view that private banks do not fall within the meaning of “authority” under the RTI Act. The plain meaning of section 2(b) of the Act dictates that the Act is limited to those particular private bodies as mentioned in the said section.
In this regard, the position of other South Asian countries warrants attention. The RTI Act of Pakistan through section 8(1)(a), explicitly excluded citizens to seek RTI about records of the banking companies and financial institutions relating to the accounts of their customers. The position of Sri Lankan RTI mechanism in terms of encompassing private bodies is quite attractive. The Act, under section 43, encompassed scope of RTI to higher educational institutions including private universities, other private educational institutions and professional institutions. The position of India is similar. In the milestone decision in Ms. Sadhana Dixit v Directorate of Education, the Central Information Commission (CIC) vehemently ruled that private schools cannot deny to provide information on service records and salaries. The Commission further instructed Director of Higher Education to notify Public Information Officers (PIOs) in all private recognised colleges and high and senior secondary schools to facilitate the people to seek information under the RTI Act. The purpose of bringing private bodies within the rubric of RTI is to reduce fleecing of students, ensuring recruitment of required faculties, providing standard infrastructural facilities and regular payment of salaries. The same ratio applies to private banks and financial institutions.
The significant challenge is to ensure that citizens are enjoying RTI in a larger number and greater scale. It has been reflected in the Annual Report 2016 of the Information Commission where the Commission recommended endorsing RTI mechanism for all private national and multinational companies. Before such mechanism is implemented, some other strategies can be followed in order the enhance flow of RTI. One possible way is adopting measures by the Central Bank requiring all private banks and financial bodies to disseminate information demanded by citizens. Moreover, citizens, in case of extracting information from any private bodies, may seek information from the pertinent governmental bodies entrusted to monitor that private institution. For instance, information about a particular private industry can be sought from the concerned inspector under the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
Undoubtedly, the development cannot be meaningful without citizens' access to and enjoyment of rights particularly right to information. The inclusion of private bodies within the purview of RTI would be the best step to do so.
The writer is an Assistant Professor, School of Law, BRAC University.