Bangladesh: RTIA and People’s Right to Know

9 August 2011

By A.J.M. Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan

Dr. A.J.M. Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan is an Associate Professor of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka. He is a news media and Internet researcher.  This article first appeared in The Star and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Can or will the Right to Information Act (RTIA) ensure people’s right to know? Answer to this question requires an analysis of the law and the context of its creation.

The military-backed non-party caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed promulgated this act in 2008 as an ordinance. The incumbent Awami League (AL) led government got it approved by the parliament. It has been a result of attempts made by various groups during the last two and a half decades.

First, journalists demanded a law, which would ensure press freedom in 1983 when military rule suppressed all kinds of expressions against the regime, and received support from the political parties (Ronjona and Alok, 2010). Under pressure, the military regime of HM Ershad created a press commission with Ataur Rahman Khan as the chair and several newspaper editors as members to find out how freedom of the press could be ensured. This commission in its report to the president recommended that the government create an act called Freedom of Information Act. But the Ershad regime never implemented this recommendation.

In the late 1990s, NGOs began to demand for ensuring right to information through enacting laws. NGOs like Ain-o-Salish Kendra and Blast, in cooperation with some international NGOs, conducted seminars and symposia for this purpose and defined right to information as a human right (Ibid). They used a United Nations covenant called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to create pressure on the Bangladeshi state. Bangladesh became a signatory to this covenant in 2000 and is obliged to treat the right to information as a legal right since then.

As a follow-up to this, the Bangladesh Law Commission created a working paper titled Right to Information Act 2002. But the Commission did not take any action related to this until 2005 when NGOs created further pressure on the state. This time NGOs tried to engage common people with this movement by knowing their opinion. An NGO called Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) took the lead. It conducted a survey among common people to know how people perceived the idea of information right and what obstacles stand in the way. Later, other media and communication related NGOs such as Mass Line Media Center (MMC), Coast Trust, D-Net and BNNRC joined the movement.

MJF, in collaboration with a Delhi-based NGO Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), organised a seminar in 2005 to make the elites aware of the need of a right to information act and the availability of such laws in other South Asian countries. After the conference, MJF assembled a group of people including lawyers, NGO activists, human rights activists and academics to prepare a draft right to information act. After creating the draft, it solicited comments from academics, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and international NGOs like CHRI and Article 19, and finalised the draft in 2007.

In the same year, MJF handed over the draft law to the law, justice and parliamentary affairs advisor to the Fakhruddin government. A government committee reviewed this draft law against the Law Commission working paper and solicited comments on this by making it available through the website of the information ministry. After this, the government created a presidential ordinance called Information Right Ordinance 2008 by giving right to information a legal status. The parliament approved this ordinance on March 29 in 2009, and it became a law after the approval of the president on April 5. The act is in force since July 1, and the information commission was created on July 2 in the same year.

Foreign government organisations, especially the USAID, worked as catalysts in enacting the law. In the post-September 11 world, the US government activities in the Bangladeshi information sector are more visible than ever. It sponsors multiple projects and institutions with a view to shaping journalism education in the country.

By this time, India also created its own RTIA in 2005 and Pakistan got an ordinance called Freedom of the Press Ordinance 2002. The Bangladeshi RTIA and the Indian RTIA have a lot of similarities. The US Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966 and amended in 1996 by incorporating the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, has been the predecessor of all the right to information acts.

What is unique in the Bangladeshi context is that a NGO took over the job of law making which has been the prerogative of the state before neoliberalisation, a process involving privatisation and liberalisation. The state adopted a completely new method, which Lisa McLaughlin and Victor Pickard (2005) would call neocorporatism, in making this law such as involving non-state actors in drafting the law and soliciting comments. The Bangladeshi state had to say yes to neocorporatism because it was either authoritative or housed a weak democracy. It hardly has any ability to resist neoliberalism since it is economically dependent on bilateral and multilateral organisations and suffers from political instability. However, it was not easy for a state which has exercised formidable authority over policy making and public life to share policy making power with NGOs. This uneasiness is embodied in the Act as on the one hand it gives right to information a legal status, on the other hand, keeps provisions to ensure the control of the ruling party over the information commission.

The Act names the organisations which are liable to provide information, designates the persons responsible for releasing information, mentions the types of information and the organisation which are exempted from releasing information, says how to request information, points out the time limit for receiving information and created an information commission and outlined the processes of selecting the commission members and the jurisdiction and power of the commission.

As a neoliberal creation, it only makes state-owned or state-funded organisations liable to provide information and exempts the private sector. The same is true for the Indian RTIA and the US FOIA. But it is well recognised that people including journalists need information from the corporate sector. Given the expansion of the private sector in the country, it is a significant omission.

This law requires all public organisations to keep information ready for dissemination, but allows the information-giving authority 20 days to deliver information after receiving a request for release. Journalists need information right away for everyday reporting. They can only wait for information when they do investigative reports. The mandated delay in delivering information makes this law almost useless for journalists.

The information commission created by this law will always be under the control of the ruling party. The selection committee which will hire the chief information commissioner and other commissioners will be dominated by the people connected with the ruling party. The selection committee includes a judge of the appellate division, nominated by the chief justice, the cabinet secretary, one parliament member from the ruling party, one parliament member from the opposition and one member from journalists and other mass communication workers nominated by the government (Section 14.1). The ruling party will always have the majority members in its favour to appoint its own people to the commission.

The criteria for selecting the chief information commissioner and other commissioners are vague when it is said that they will be “persons with broad knowledge and experience in law, Justice, Journalism, education, science, technology, information, social service, management, or public administration.” (Section 15.5) The term “broad knowledge and experience” does not provide any specific idea about the quality of the persons and this vagueness allows room to the ruling party to choose the people of its choice.

The information commission is a powerful body with the ability to fine the people responsible for disbursing information for their unlawful denial of information to any requester.

However, one big omission in the law is the provision related to accountability as it does not say to whom this commission is accountable. Any democratic institution should have provisions to ensure its accountability.

As the act is a result of negotiations between the state and NGOs, it ensures that government and government-funded institutions make some concessions to quell the right to information movement. It is no doubt a significant progress in a country where government officials would suppress information by using a colonial law called the Official Secrets Act 1921. But to make it more contributory to people’s right to know, the RTIA needs to make the private organisations which deal with the public liable to release information. Such private organisations should include those organisations which employ people and sell products or services in the market as these activities are indeed public activities.

This law can be made useful for journalists by reducing the time period in delivering information. The act can incorporate a section which will say that journalists will get necessary information right away. Journalists can ask for this privilege as they are doing a public service. It will not be onerous on the designated officials because under the law they are supposed to keep the releasable information ready.

The commission needs to be made accountable to the parliament to make sure that it carries out its job properly. In a parliamentary democracy, parliament is the most legitimate body to hold the commission responsible on behalf of the people.

These two changes to the Act may guarantee the availability of information but will not ensure people’s use of them because collecting and using information require special skills which humans achieve through a long-term training. People need to be prepared for seeking and using information. The role of academic institutions is crucial to equip people to handle information. Unfortunately, public academic institutions are in terrible shape, and teachers are one of the lowest paid professional groups. The state needs to invest more in education.

References
Ronjona, S.H. and S. G. Alok (2010). Sangbadikotai Tothya Odhikar Ain. Dhaka: MRDI
McLaughlin, L. and Victor Pickard (2005). “What is bottom-up about global Internet governance?” Global Media and Communication, 1(3), 357-373.

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