Let people know
THE much-awaited Right to Information (RTI) ordinance 2008, aiming to ensure people's right to information and to establish good governance in government offices and NGOs -- increasing transparency and accountability -- got final approval of the council of advisers on September 20.
New posts will be created in most of the government offices and NGOs, and the officials holding those posts will be basically responsible for providing people with the information within 20 days of receipt of application. In issues concerning a person's life and death, or arrest and release from jail, the official will have to provide primary information within 24 hours.
Academics, intellectuals, journalists, businessmen and civil society members had stressed the need for discussing the matter with political players who will ultimately implement the law. Though the information ministry organised discussions to get recommendations from the eminent citizens on the draft RTI ordinance before giving it a final shape, it did not feel the necessity of discussing with the political leaders.
The RTI ordinance with 36 sections, and a schedule of six security and intelligence agencies which cannot be asked for information, also has a list of about 20 exemptions from disclosure of information.
The security and intelligence agencies are National Security Intelligence (NSI), Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Military Intelligence Directorate, Special Security Force (SSF), Criminal Investigation Department of Police (CID) and Central Intelligence Cell of the National Board of Revenue.
The most frustrating part of the RTI Ordinance is the exemption of all the six security and intelligence agencies from its purview, which is inconsistent to democratic dispensation. There is no denying that some of the agencies are often accused of overriding their jurisdiction.
Information related to state security; sovereignty and dignity should be exempted from disclosure. But the list of exemptions is too long. The people must have the right to know everything except the issues involved with state security. Exemption from disclosure of information counter to "public interest" should be deleted as it goes against the spirit of the ordinance.
According to the RTI ordinance, the president of the country will appoint a chief information commissioner and two commissioners on recommendation of a search committee headed by a judge of the Appellate Division of Supreme Court, having the cabinet secretary, two MPs -- one each from the treasury and opposition benches -- and an eminent citizen as members.
The information commission's independence may be hampered because of the budgeting process stipulated in the RTI ordinance. The information commission must be granted full autonomy to recruit and remove its staff and to place its own budget directly to the parliament instead of going through the ministry. Otherwise, the commission will be a toothless one.
The information commission is empowered to impose a fine of Tk 50 for each day's delay, and a total fine not exceeding Tk 5,000, if any assigned officials fail to provide information to an information-seeker within the specified time.
The independent information commission formed by the ordinance must made it clear that aggrieved members of the public can seek enforcement of their "right to know" only through it. It should be considered as a criminal offence to destroy data for which a valid request is made.
What is crucial for an effective RTI is that the government functionaries must be well equipped to cater to the people's need for information. Creation of an information bank and information dissemination system at offices, and proper training of officials, is a must to cope with the situation. Freedom of Information Act in UK took five years after its approval to come fully into force in 2005.
According to the UK's freedom of information laws, anyone of any nationality, living anywhere in the world, may request for information held by more than one hundred thousand public authorities and other designated non-governmental organisations in UK and expect an answer within 20 working days, usually free of charge.
Most of the central government departments in UK are now well geared up with a mass of easily accessible information already on their websites. India has also implemented its RTI laws by successfully creating information bank.
It is a commendable development that the CTG has finally approved the RTI Ordinance-2008, which apparently meets one of the long-standing aspirations of the people. But implementation of the RTI laws remains a big hurdle to cross as a change in the mindset of all the government functionaries is needed to provide people with information affecting their lives and livings.
Many people are suspicious about the sincerity of the officials to be assigned to provide information to people, as the officials are accustomed to act as a barrier between the government and the people because of their bureaucratic breeding.
Certainly, the RTI Ordinance bears significance for a country like Bangladesh, where peoples are struggling to strike a balance between administrative transparency and accountability and their access to information. The RTI and good governance are intertwined aspects of same factor, i.e. a driving force in democracy.
But the RTI Ordinance cannot be meaningful unless a culture of seeking information can be developed in the society. In a country like ours, where a high rate of illiteracy exits, RTI would have a very little impact if common people are not acquainted with the procedures of seeking information. The media, NGOs and human right organisations can play this vital role by arranging campaigns to educate common people on how to exercise the right.
The RTI is a cardinal necessity for good governance, and the whole mechanism of governance in the country has been vitiated owing to lack of it. The successive political governments did not make RTI laws as the vested interest groups had always influenced them with a view to keeping their misdeeds hidden. The onus now lies on the next elected government to make the RTI fully effective as soon as it takes oath of office and settles down.