Not all international days are, of course, marked with the same dedication everywhere. In Bangladesh, we observe the International Mother Language Day on February 21 more elaborately than any other country. But we do not observe most other international days with the same passion. So why pay attention to this particular day?
This day honours the right of citizens to information, a right which came into prominence after the end of Cold War and the emergence of new democracies in the early 1990s. In the nearly 130 countries which have the Right to Information (RTI) laws—including Bangladesh since 2009—this has particular relevance.
As citizens of a democratic state, we are the owners of all powers of the state. The RTI law is a concrete demonstration of that. It provides the citizens with a legal basis to play an oversight role and scrutinise the work of the government and all other public authorities. They do so by asking for information, documents or data from them, without having to give a reason. The idea is to make governance more open and accountable to the people.
By accessing such information, citizens get to know how public offices go about doing their jobs. They learn if public officials abide by the laws, rules and policies that exist. And, when the information reveals wrongdoings, they may seek corrective measures. Of course, this is an ideal which may never be achieved fully, but that is no reason not to strive for it.
This day gives us an opportunity to take stock of the state of affairs of the RTI regime in our country. It is a day for a deeper reflection on the law. In Bangladesh, we have reasons to be both happy and concerned about the performance of the RTI law on its 10th birthday. It is remarkable that a law which has challenged our secretive official culture has survived all these years. We have embarked on an encouraging beginning: no mean achievement given the revolutionary nature of the law. But to reap the harvest, we have a long way to go.
If any particular group of people deserves credit for having set us on this path, it is our most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. When the overwhelming majority of the population remained unaware of, or uninterested in, the law, and when very little use of it was being made by the middle and educated classes, members of these communities came forward to put it to use. RTI helped them access benefits under the government’s safety-net programmes.
These communities came to know about the RTI law and its use thanks to a number of NGOs. These organisations made sure that illiteracy and lack of access to power did not hold the communities back. And without their requests for information, in those early days, even the authorities would not have known about the existence of the law, despite the trainings/briefings they received from NGOs and the Information Commission. The latter must be commended for its efforts as well.
So where do we go from here? We should graduate to the next station in this path—using it not only for access to benefits but for transparency in governance and accountability-seeking purposes, which are the basic objectives of the law.
Though this type of use has been limited so far, public officials dealing with the RTI requests are getting better at responding. Here too, NGOs have helped by generating more RTI requests, and the efforts of the Information Commission over the years in training public officials have borne fruit.
We know that governments all over the world are normally not very keen to promote the law for well-known reasons. But so far, our government has provided the necessary support to the RTI system and, equally significantly, has not blocked its way.
As funding for NGOs in this area is unstable, the government should consider making funds available to them to carry on the good work. The government should also ensure that the Information Commissioners are selected objectively. Without independent-minded commissioners, the Information Commission cannot earn the respect of the citizens, which is essential for the success of this law.
Citizens often complain that the Information Commission does not treat RTI applicants and government officials equally at the complaint hearings. The commission should encourage citizens and not discourage them. As we observe the day today, there should be frank exchanges between the two sides on the matter.
The commission too has concerns about the way some RTI activists have used the law, apparently to embarrass public officials or malign them or for other illicit goals. Anything that harms the application of the law harms us all. The law is meant to be beneficial for all citizens, including public officials. Without a proper understanding of the mutual interests of both sides in a fair application of the law, its benefits will not reach everybody.
How should we assess the progress of the law so far in Bangladesh? Using the football league analogy, we could perhaps say that after ten years, RTI in Bangladesh is still caught in the Third Division. To move up to the Second Division, we must move away from using the law primarily for private and micro-political goals to matters of public interest and macro-political goals. For the former, much of the information can be made available online, as is the case in many countries already. They include those on government services, licenses, policies, budgets, tenders, etc. However, for information relating to accountability-seeking purposes, such as government performance and decision-making, there is no alternative to formal written requests. Unless we learn to use the RTI Act for such purposes, we shall not enjoy the real benefits of the law, nor shall we move up the ladder.
And to move up to the First Division, we will have to learn to use the law for political mobilisation and public oversight on more sensitive governance issues. For that to happen, we would need citizens who already have some power—scholars and academics, professional groups like journalists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, as well as political workers—to make use of the law. So far, most of these people are either not fully aware of the law or are reluctant to use it. The government too should take note that if we are unable to show better results in this regard, we shall not be able to show success on a key requirement of Goal 16, of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which relates to peoples’ access to information.
Shamsul Bari is Chairman, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB). Email: email@example.com