RTI Environment in Nepal Shows Positive Signs

22 July 2013

By Anurudra Neupane

The author is Program Manager at Freedom Forum.

The interim constitution of Nepal has recognized Right to Information (RTI) as one of the fundamental rights of people. RTI Act 2007 and Rule 2009 help citizen exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to know. 

Though the posts of information commissioners are currently vacant, we have independent semi-judicial institution, the National Information Commission (NIC), to hear appeals from information requesters if they are denied requested information by public agencies. However, it must be said that access to information situation is still weak. 

Three pillars vital for enhanced access to information are: strong demand, proactive supply and properly recorded and managed information. In Nepal, demand side is slowly gaining in strength. We do not have a proactive supply side but improvements have been observed in some public agencies in recent days. 

More Information Officers, Cases

The number of government offices appointing information officers is increasing. Ministries and some central level government agencies normally don’t deny information requests. Therefore the most crucial issue now is the absence of proper record management which is fundamental to creating, maintaining, protecting and timely disseminating information. 

The National Information Commission (NIC) got 173 fresh complaints and appeals during the first nine months of fiscal year 2012/13 from requesters of information, up from 39 such cases in 2009/10. Records include only those cases on which officials of public agencies denied information or provided incomplete information to the requesters and the latter filed complaints with the NIC. There are many other cases in which information requesters either have received information as per the request or have not taken further steps such as filing complaints or appeals. Freedom Forum has records of about 200 RTI applications in 2012/13. Based on this it can be estimated that there might be around 1,000 RTI applications in Nepal every year. 

However, information seekers and campaigners have been complaining that the government has not recognized RTI as an important instrument to enhance transparency, accountability and good governance. The Finance Minister did not feel it necessary to utter the word ‘RTI’ even once in his long budget speech of fiscal 2013/14, proving that promoting citizens’ access to information is not a government priority. 

Increasing Demand

Important public agencies on the supply side of RTI including political parties have not yet built favorable environment to promote RTI culture in their offices. NGOs/INGOs are also accused of being nontransparent, even though they claim to be promoting RTI. Still, civil society initiatives have been successful in creating strong demand. Citizens are gradually becoming aware of the importance of RTI and therefore the use of right to information is gaining momentum. Hence it is not easy for the government to just neglect the issue of RTI.

Government as such seems reluctant to promote RTI, but some ministries have started good practices that are worth mentioning. The Ministry of Finance (MoF) has launched a web portal named ‘aid management platform’ which can significantly enhance people’s access to foreign aid related information. In addition, MoF is the first ministry to implement the provision of proactive disclosure of information as required by the RTI Act 2007. It has started to publish information related to the ministry’s activities every three months. 

Ministry of Federal Affair and Local Development has recently issued a circular to all agencies under it, including village development committees (VDCs) either to appoint information officers from among employees or get the chief executives of those agencies to also double as information officers. Some other central level public agencies including parliamentary secretariat have also responded positively to information requests. 

Information Officers Organize Group

A loose network of information officers of government agencies called the Society of Information Officers (SION) has been formed. SION is now working with civil society to enhance supply side of RTI. As a part of its initiative, trainings have been recently imparted to 45 information officers at various ministries, departments and other important central government agencies including Nepal Police and Nepal Rastra Bank. This is another important step toward building an enabling environment for RTI in Nepal. 

Generally, our governance has been highly influenced by traditional bureaucratic thinking. The majority of government officials still do not feel comfortable working in RTI friendly environment. But at the same time, some change makers have also entered the public services. They can play a pivotal role in building a culture of openness. Even if current strength on demand side can be maintained, those change agents in the government services will have incentive to work on creating better supply side. 

Records Issues

RTI Act 2007 provisions that public agencies update and maintain records of 20 years. Being positive is not enough to maintain proper records. It also calls for adequate human, financial and physical resources. Internal flow of information is another important issue. 

Guiding policy for record management and commitment from government in terms of resource allocation are two basic requirements to build minimum infrastructure to promote RTI. Civil society’s efforts might be sufficient to build awareness and promote demand side. Positive democratic governance might create pro-RTI supply side. However, proper record management will call for real effort from the government. 

All public agencies need to proactively disclose information of public concern as per the RTI Act. Some information is of personal nature, which in many cases should not be proactively disclosed but should be provided to requesters on demand. Some other information of national interest might need long-term protection. Therefore, different types of information should be created, classified, maintained and disseminated to the right people in different ways. 

Security measures should be built based on importance and sensitivity of records. Digitization is also important but this needs more competent human resource and even stronger protection mechanism. In addition, suitable meta data (information about data) are also needed to ensure easy access to existing data. 

There are several examples of public agencies not being able to provide requested information due to absence of records. 

If information is not managed properly, its retrieval can be very time consuming for information requesters. On the other hand, it is not possible to proactively disclose information in the absence of proper record management system.

Moreover, absence of quality records causes inefficiency. The government should take these issues seriously for proactive as well as reactive disclosure of information and to ensure free flow of information within the organization. If government makes an effort, other public agencies may follow, resulting in improved citizens’ access to information. Only then can an enabling environment for effective implementation of RTI law be created.

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