By M. S. Siddiqui
The following article appeared Oct. 31 in Asian Age. The author is an author and former business executive.
Efforts to ensure citizens access to public information can be traced back to 1766, with the Swedish parliament enacting the first legislation seeking freedom of information. However, recognition of the right to information as a human right was formalized with its inclusion in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Article 19) in 1948.
In the last decade there has been a crucial shift in attitudes to access to information. Previously it was viewed as a tool or indicator for governing7, a ‘legislative “luxury” enjoyed by a few advanced democracies’. Access to information is now being claimed as a right and the issue has been taken up by civil society.
This represents a profound shift from seeing information government property to seeing information as citizen property. Government is merely a guardian of information. The mantra or proverb ‘knowledge is power’ has been swapped for ‘information is ours’10 and governments are now seen as being obliged to provide citizens with the information that they require.
In the UK, the campaign for a Freedom of Information Act was spearheaded by a specialist and established NGO: the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The British Act was passed in 2000.Bangladesh adapted Right to Information (RTI) legislation in 2009 may be a significant step, but it is by no means a guarantee of the right to information. The mechanisms that enforce and implement these laws are just as important as the legislation itself. RTI have been passed in response to international and domestic pressure, and are not adequate to promote meaningful access to information.
This establishes the constitutional/legal right for a citizen to access the information that they want. It has created mandatory obligation for government to publish as much information as possible in an accessible form for convenient of common people.
The law empowered citizen to ask for all types and forms of information held, categories of information published and procedure for requesting information; description of powers and duties of senior officers; procedure followed in making decisions; any regulations, policies, rules, guides or manuals regarding the discharge of its functions; content of all policies adopted which affect the public, along with reasons, any authoritative interpretations of them, and any important background material; and any mechanisms by the public may make representations or otherwise influence the information or policy or exercise of powers by the public authority.
Oversight, Use Necessary
Simply establishing right to information laws, however, does not guarantee the right in practice. To guarantee this right, the law needs to be enforced with appropriate oversight and record management mechanisms. And citizens need to be willing to exercise their right to request information – something that might be termed ‘a culture of wanting to know’. In countries where a culture of secrecy has prevailed this is perhaps one of the most significant barriers.
The right approach to creating an open and transparent government is highly dependent on the country’s democratic maturity and local context. Any approach needs to be tailored to local conditions.
Effectively forming a system of openness has three strands of focus for creating an open and transparent government: (a) right to information laws that establish the legal right for the public to access the information that they want; (b) proactive transparency where governments publish as much information as possible; and (c) open data systems allowing anyone to re-use data in ways that are more relevant to them.
Basic Information Required
The relevant information should be on various aspects of activity of government such as:
(1) Organizational information: Organizational structure including information on personnel, and the names and contact information of public officials.
(2) Operational information: Strategy and plans, policies, activities, procedures, reports, and evaluations-including the facts and other documents and data being used as a basis for formulating them.
(3) Decisions and acts: Decisions and formal acts, particularly those that directly affect the public – including the data and documents used as the basis for these decisions and acts.
(4) Public services information: Descriptions of services offered to the public, guidance, booklets and leaflets, copies of forms, information on fees and deadlines.
(5) Budget information: Projected budget, actual income and expenditure (including salary information) and other financial information and audit reports.
(6) Open meetings information: Information on meetings, including which are open meetings and how to attend these meetings. Decision-making and public participation: Information on decision-making procedures including mechanisms for consultations and public participation in decision-making.
(7) Subsidies information: Information on the beneficiaries of subsidies, the objectives, amounts, and implementation.
(8) Public procurement information: Detailed information on public procurement processes, criteria, and outcomes of decision-making on tender applications; copies of contracts, and reports on completion of contracts.
(9) Lists, registers, databases: Information on the lists, registers, and databases held by the public body. Information about whether these lists, registers, and databases are available online or for on-site access by members of the public.
(10) Information about information held: An index or register of documents/information held including details of information held in databases.
(11) Publications information: Information on publications issued, including whether publications are free of charge or the price if they must be purchased.
(12) Information about the right to information: Information on the right of access to information and how to request information, including contact information for the responsible person in each public body.
Paper RTI Law
But many RTI laws around the world are today merely ‘paper’ laws.
Bangladesh law also became a paper law. The Official Secrecy law still exists. There is psychological barrier in the mind of citizen that all documents hold by authorities is secret and officials have no intention to reveal relevant information as per the RTI law.
There are some other common problems include lack of use of ICT in dissemination of information, less initiative to implement the law, culture of secrecy leftover from colonial regimes, government delay tactics in processing information requests; and laws such as official secrecy laws that undermine RTI law.
One of the most formidable challenges of implementing RTI is the lack of capacity of the information holders – institutions as well as individuals. It goes without saying that the information management system in Bangladesh is archaic, because of which the practical limitations in retrieving and providing information may also be conveniently exploited to deny and deceive information seekers.
RTI law has some clause barrier to right to information. Section 32 and Schedule the following organizations and institutions shall not be covered by the RTI Act: 1. National Security Intelligence (NSI) 2. Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) 3.Defence Intelligence Units 4. Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Bangladesh Police 5. Special Security Force (SSF) 6. Intelligence Cell of the National Board of Revenue 7.Special Branch, Bangladesh Police 8.Intelligence Cell of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). There are many instance of violation of human rights by these forces and reported corruption.
There are many instance of violation of human rights by these forces and reported corruption. Information relating to corruption and human rights must be given disclosed only with the approval of the Information Commission. The clause may be amended to bring them under RTI law for their activities except any national security issues.
The laws like the Official Secrets Act 1923, Evidence Act 1872 (123-124), Rules of Business 1996 (Rule 28-1), Government Services Conduct Act 1979 (Rule 19) or the secrecy provision under the Oath of Appointment to public office have created a conflicting legal atmosphere for the government officials. These situations encourage the culture of secrecy.
The implementation process should include harmonizing all existing laws and regulations with the RTI Act so as to remove any inconsistencies and contradictions that could impede the prospect of implementation. Under Section 7, information that could threaten security, integrity and sovereignty of Bangladesh could be denied. Also if it affects relations with foreign countries or organizations it could be refused.
It provides other circumstances when information can be denied. Some of these restrictions are logical but the way the Act has been framed, broad remit of issues on the denial list including an imprecise definition of national security.
Despite limitation of law, infrastructure and manpower, we all must try to utilize the Act as much as possible for the benefit of the people for whom the act has been formulated. All the stakeholders may also try to upgrade the law to get real benefit of the RTI law.
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