Study Finds Implementation of Bangladesh RTI Law Slow

15 April 2014

The implementation of Bangladesh’s 2009 right to information law is “still very slow,” according to a comprehensive “Country Diagnostic Analysis” that contains recommendations for improvement.

The study, conducted by the Management and Resources Development Initiative (MRDI), examined many facets. The findings include:

–      public awareness of the law (low)

–      the role of the media (writes about the law, but doesn’t much use it)

–      nongovernmental organizations (not big users, not always compliant with the law, which applies to them)

–      government compliance (officers appointed, but poorly trained, unmotivated)

–      proactive disclosure (“unsatisfactory,” very selective)

–      request performance (weak)

–      information commission (understaffed, sometimes ignored)

–      future amendments (needed, but not yet proposed)

Text of  major findings of the study

• General Citizens, particularly the vulnerable segment of society are unaware of this law. They cannot relate the right to information with solution of the problems related to their life and livelihood.

• Information Commission and NGOs have taken initiative on awareness building but it reaches only to a limited segment of population. Media  analysis found that the events organized by IC and NGOs are mostly confined divisional towns and the capital city. But 80% of the country’s total population live in village or rural areas. As per IC report 19.24 million SMS in phonetic style were sent. But the number of mobile phone users who can phonetic SMS has to be taken into consideration in this country of low literacy rate.

• As per the law, there should be an Information Providing Designated Officer at each and every office. Every office covered under this study was found to have a Designated Officer. In that aspect, Bangladesh has made a good progress. According to the report of the Information Commission, till now more than 12,000 such officers have been appointed at government and NGO offices. Their names and identities have been put up at the website of the Commission.

• In terms of nominating officers as Designated Officers (DO) the government offices have maintained minimum level of qualification. The study found that personnel with a status of officer have been assigned as DO at Upazila and district level. At the ministry level, joint secretaries have been designated as Designated Officers. This is a positive sign.

• However, all these Designated Officers do not have clear idea about their responsibilities and have received very limited training on implementing the RTI Act. They have hardly any motivation to do the job and they think they are just carrying out an office order. Government departments do not have sufficient funds or budget allocation to train the officers on RTI Act.

• The overall status of proactive disclosure as per section-6 is unsatisfactory. The authorities are providing information on request which should have been proactively disclosed. For instance detail project proposal, budget, name and contact detail of designated officer is not disclosed proactively.

• The picture at the NGO offices is relatively better, as they have available project funds and development priorities. They participated in training or related programs on RTI Act, sometimes to fulfill donor’s requirements. There are number of NGOs who are organizing such trainings for their DOs. All of them have received training more than once and they are aware about RTI law.

• As regards to voluntary disclosure of information, several efforts have already been initiated. Almost all offices have websites and there is a positive initiative to update these sites. Since 2007, it is mandatory for all government offices to have citizen charters. It has been reinforced by RTI Act, 2009.

• The government and NGO authorities are interested in giving information on policies, approved projects etc. However, both the authorities are reluctant to give information on budget allocation, fund management, budget expenditure etc. Information obtained in response to 13 out of 22 applications supports this finding.

• The websites of the authorities provide broadly generalized information and they do not give information on budget distribution or expenditure. For example, none of the NGO websites contains essential portion of Foreign Donation Fund Release Form, such as approved budget by line item, approved project proposal, project objective etc.

• Four appellate authorities, two each at district and ministry levels, declined to give interviews. Those who gave interviews had little poor knowledge about the law. Due to lack of clear directives, there is a lack of interest about the law among these officers. The attitude and knowledge of the appellate authorities are similar to those of the designated officers. However, there is no directive from the related ministry to the appellate authority.

• The media of the country puts importance on RTI related news and special treatment is given to the event based stories. Reporters hardly produce any news items on their own initiatives.

• There is a positive trend among the journalists in recent times in using RTI law for seeking information. Several journalists have used the law to seek information to be used in reports. But newsroom leaders need to be more sensitive and supportive.

• The Bangladeshi media is ignoring the aspect of encouraging the people to use and practice the law.

• The media is prominently covering non-cooperation by government officers, but hardly have they mentioned non-cooperation by NGOs which are also under the purview of the RTI Act.

• The Information Commission’s annual budget is underutilized due to shortage of manpower and willingness to organize advocacy programs. The commission approved appointment of 76 personnel, but only 39 have so far been appointed.

• The commission feels that not all of its directives are equally being carried out. The Commission had requested the Secretaries of all ministries to appoint Designated Officers for providing information at all government offices—but it was not completely done. Similarly many NGOs also do not have Designated Officers for providing information. The subordinate courts and offices of the law enforcing agencies have not appointed the Designated Officers.

• The Information Commission office is independent from government offices. It enjoys certain degrees of autonomy in terms of its financial and administrative exercises. Still it needs to take approval of the finance ministry and Public Administration Department on financial and administrative matters.

• Ability to ensure compliance with orders: As per provision of section 25(12) of the Right to Information Act, 2009 it has been made mandatory for all the authorities to comply with the orders of the Information Commission. On a careful reading of the decisions of the Information Commission it was found that most of the cases admitted for hearing were disposed of on the first hearing date as the Designated Officers provided information on being summoned by the Commission. The Commission has not yet adopted any step to assess the status of compliance of the orders passed by it. So, it is necessary to assess the status of implementation of the orders of the Commission in other cases.

• Fear of adverse repercussions: Though there is an over-riding provision under section 3 of the RTI Act, 2009 yet the Designated Officers always play his role in providing information with due fear of the superior officers. It is because of the provisions made in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 which imposes penalty of rigorous imprisonment on the incumbent in cases of illegal transfer of secret information and the Govt. Servants’ (Conduct) Rules, 1979 which imposes departmental penalties even up to dismissal from the service. Moreover, there is a fear of facing trouble if any adverse comment is made by the controlling officer against him in the Annual Confidential Report on the act done by the Designated Officer. Information Commission has been given the function to suggest the government for amendment of the conflicting laws creating impediments in providing requested information. But, so far it is known that no such proposal has yet been sent by the Commission to the government.

• Adequate and appropriate penalties for violations of its provisions:

The provision of imposing fines is much lower compared to that of the Indian RTI Act, 2005. Members of the public recommended to enhance the penal provision as they feel that the amount of fine incorporated in the Act is inadequate and inappropriate for the officials.

• There are some confusions and misconceptions among the bureaucrats about the section 7 of the RTI Act, 2009 which exempts some information from the mandate of disclosure for which this section needs to be revised or simplified.


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