RTI in Nepal – A civil society perspective

19 July 2013

By Pranav Bhattarai

Pranav Bhattarai is the Chief Operating Officer of the Good Governance (GoGo) Foundation, Nepal

Right to Information (RTI) is one of the eight basic consumer rights as per the UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection. This is also an integral part of our Consumer Protection Act and one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 27 of the Interim Constitution. With this constitutional and legal guarantee, people enjoy every right to question the government, demand it to perform better and hold it to account for the resources spent in various development and welfare programs. When people start demanding information and details on government spending, public officials will have limited chances to indulge in mis-allocation of funds. 

Since the law came into effect on 21 August, 2007, enlightened citizenry and some civil society organizations are strategically using it. Whether it was a public disclosure of a list of VAT defaulting companies that cost the state treasury Rs 7 billion or the story of misuse of hundreds of thousands of tax-paid money by the committee formed to investigate the killing of Kailali-based journalist J P Joshi, RTI simply did wonders in exposing them. These disclosures established that most corruption, fraud and embezzlement are hidden in government documents, records and reports. Thus, having access to such crucial documents through RTI can be pivotal in improving these systemic anomalies. 

Though we can take pride in these few successful RTI application, Nepal still records a poor implementation status with a long list of tough challenges ahead. Prominent challenges include bureaucratic reluctance, threat of arbitrary classification of information, political unwillingness and lack of sensitization campaigns among the people. Culture of bureaucratic secrecy has remained one of the major bottlenecks to right to know. Even after five years, our bureaucracy still appears adamant to acknowledge people’s access to information as a fundamental democratic right. Bureaucracy’s intrusive influence was explicitly felt in government efforts to classify the list of information twice in the past which was later postponed indefinitely following criticism from all quarters. 

As information requesters and consumers, we must also realize that right to information can’t be absolute although the principle of maximum disclosure underpins all RTI laws globally. Not all information can be disclosed to the public particularly if it relates to sensitive information falling under ‘exemption provisions’. But, what we also need to be mindful of is; universal principle of RTI underpins public interest in disclosure that outweighs the harm to the protected interests. As its true spirit lies in legal guarantee for maximum disclosure and minimum exemptions, government’s malicious intentions in classifying information by misinterpreting ‘exemption clauses’ in days ahead may seriously jeopardize RTI rationale and people’s right to know. 

Some Loopholes Exist

Some existing loopholes in the law must have preempted the government to tighten the grip. Our RTI law doesn’t contain any provision for public interest override. Legally, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests, the information even if exempt under the law must also be disclosed to the public on request. Similarly, the law also excludes clause for legal overriding to other secrecy laws. In absence of such legal override, inconsistent and restrictive provisions in other existing laws might impede people’s free access to information. Thus, addressing these legal lacunae will be yet another Herculean challenge. 

The tradition in which our ministers, elected representatives and bureaucrats have schooled themselves over decades is also one of the reasons behind their apathy towards the RTI law. We have nurtured a tradition of administering ‘oath of secrecy’ to the ministers including high level bureaucrats. This has systemically developed stereotypical tendency within them to maintain secrecy to their level best. Thus, why not initiate a debate for ‘oath of transparency’ to the ministers and civil servants. The shift from ‘oath of secrecy’ will definitely unleash a momentum in RTI implementation. But, for this to happen, political will is crucial. 

Political will and government pro-activeness constitutes another important imperative in promoting RTI law. Bangladesh handled over 29,000 RTI applications just in one year. In India, RTI applications being filed at public bodies have been increasing 8 to 10 times more annually. Even in advanced democratic country like Sweden, the government itself conducted an ‘Open Sweden Campaign’ to increase public sector transparency and people’s awareness level. Just across the southern border, state government of Bihar initiated a RTI call centre ‘JAANKARI’ to provide free services to people to write RTI applications and transmits requests to the concerned government bodies free of cost. The above examples show that the government, which bears principal obligation to disclose information, must take lead role in implementing the law. For this, the government needs to take few but urgent measures to establish the groundwork and infrastructure required for effective implementation. These steps include acceptable classification of information and designating information officers in all offices among other things.

 

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