International day for universal access to information this year comes at a time when the whole world is reeling from the greatest global crisis since World War II. The Covid-19 pandemic has spared no country over the last six months and shows no signs of abating.
The crisis has wounded the relationship between governments and citizens. People have felt that their governments have not shared the relevant information with them, making it difficult for them to assess the ominous ground realities and their government's responses to them. The importance of proper information sharing between the two sides could not have been brought into sharper focus. People started paying more attention to transparency regimes, like Right to Information (RTI) Acts.
The critical need for governments to keep their citizens informed about their activities holds true at all times; the pandemic has only sharpened our awareness. Transparency is the crux of good governance. International day for universal access to information provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how the law has fared in the country so far and consider measures to do better.
The RTI Act 2009 of Bangladesh has now been in operation for 11 years. The decision to open up all government records, with few exceptions, to public scrutiny, was indeed a revolutionary act by our lawmakers. The law fulfilled the democratic aspirations of the people and a commitment of successive governments. It sparked hope for more transparent and accountable governance, bringing the people and the government closer together to strengthen democracy. The goal of RTI is to help the government to ensure good governance, not to topple it.
In the years that followed, it became apparent that the transition from secretive to transparent governance is not easy. The challenge lay in the objectives of the law itself. To make full use of the law would require the two main protagonists—citizens and the government—to completely change their traditional mindset about governance. While in the old system, government's authority held sway over citizens, the new dispensation recognised citizens' ultimate ownership of all powers of the state and thus their authority over government machinery. Few people realised that the tables were turned.
Such a fundamental change in the concept of governance obviously called for redefining the respective roles of the protagonists. For citizens, who are made the pivot of the system, it meant that they not only have the right to monitor the work of the government but a responsibility, even a duty, to do so. On the other hand, government bodies are required to recognise the ultimate controlling authority of the people over them and, as a corollary, their responsibility to keep them properly informed about their work. The term "information" assumed a special meaning and importance.
The concept of public information is, of course, inextricably linked to the concept of "public interest". The law gives citizens the right to access public information based on the concept of public interest. It may or may not have anything to do with one's private or personal interest. For example, my interest in accessing all information on whether public fund is being properly spent for the construction of the Padma Bridge is based on my public interest and not personal.
Public authorities must, therefore, appreciate the concept of public information to understand why citizens are given access to them. RTI law links disclosure of information to public good. In fact, the RTI Acts of many countries, though not of Bangladesh, contain a "public interest override" clause, which means that even exempted information may be disclosed if public interest overrides the need for secrecy. Such is the power of citizens in democracy!
So how should we highlight the international day for universal access to information? The short answer is, all of us—government and people alike—must resolve to implement the RTI Act, as seamlessly as possible, to promote better governance.
We learn from the annual reports of the Information Commission that on an average around 8,500 RTI requests are filed annually with various public offices in the country. Compared to the annual average of 60 lakh requests in India, the number is very small indeed. It should be the resolve of all concerned to increase the number.
But the good news is, despite its slow growth, there has been a growing trend in recent years, before the pandemic struck, for citizens to move away from the earlier practice of using the law primarily for personal reasons to using it on governance issues affecting the larger public. The lack of focus on bigger national issues, however, indicate that there is still a long way to go for more mature use of the law to emerge. For this to happen, there is a need to remove the impediments applicants face in using the law.
RTI activists often adduce three main obstacles encountered by users. One, difficulties in the application process itself, which discourage many from using it. Two, non-response or excessive delays in the response from authorities concerned or sometimes threatening telephone calls from them to withdraw requests. These create disappointments and fear, affecting people's will to pursue the process. And three, unfriendly attitude towards complainants at IC hearings, and the propensity of the commissioners to be more accommodating towards recalcitrant government officials. Many also allege the tendency of the IC to interpret the law restrictively to deny disclosure.
International day for universal access to information provides an opportunity for all the stakeholders to discuss the impediments dispassionately and identify remedies. As the law is meant to serve the interest of the entire nation, there should be no "we" versus "they" in its application. The Covid-19 pandemic has undeniably aroused greater interest in the law among previously disinterested citizens. RTI enthusiast must utilise this positive development to promote collaborative efforts to overcome the impediments and induct them into the system. The views of the High Court should also be sought on legal issues underlying the decisions of the IC. This will help, inter alia, to draw focus on the fundamental principles of the law. The government on its part can help immensely by promoting neutrality of the IC through appropriate messages and ensuring a transparent process of selecting the commissioners. A mechanism to reward public officials for exemplary compliance with the law can also be helpful.
The RTI Act provides an opportunity for the government to work hand in hand with the people. At a time when the highest leadership of the government appears to be giving greater attention to governance issues affecting the public, we should expect that the ailments of the RTI regime would receive similar attention. A serious dialogue between the people and the government on the matter is overdue. As the foremost law of the land which only citizens can apply to advance democracy, the government has all the reasons to ensure its successful operation. The systemic change in governance that the law promises can only happen with the full commitment of the government. Let citizen-government cooperation for good governance be the resolve of this year's international day for universal access to information and for all future years to come.
Shamsul Bari is the Chairman of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB).