Evolving Dimensions of the Bangladesh RTI Act

3 November 2016

By Muhammad Zamir

The author, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner, is an analyst specializing in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. This article first appeared Oct. 30 in The Dhaka Tribune.

Some have raised questions as to whether the RTI process is working. The answer is yes and no.

The evolving dynamics within the New World Economic Order prompted the unelected government of Bangladesh to adopt Right to Information as a part of its governance dynamics through an ordinance on October 20, 2008. Subsequently, the elected government took necessary steps to enact the Right to Information Act, 2009 during the first session of the new parliament.

This approval came on March 29, 2009 and it became part of nearly 1,100 separate laws that create our legal structure.

The RTI as a measure has been adopted in South Asia by Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and most recently by Sri Lanka on August 4, 2016, when its parliament certified that they had “duly passed” their RTI Bill and henceforth it was a law.

Unlike other countries who follow the Westminster form of government, the bill duly enacted by Sri Lanka’s parliament did not have to go to the head of the state for his/her assent, to become law. A certification on the bill appended by the speaker of the parliament under Article 79 of the Sri Lankan Constitution was enough to make it a law.

There is public support for effective access to information in Bhutan, but, till, now that country’s government has refrained itself from adopting any law to that effect. Maldives has also been hampered in becoming a partner in the RTI framework because of the general instability in their governance structure.

Afghanistan, a member of the SAARC, has yet to take the necessary steps to be part of the Freedom of Information paradigm. The World Bank, on several occasions, has tried to persuade the relevant authorities in that country to take the requisite measures but has failed due to obdurate opposition from the existing tribal structures.

On September 28, the Information Commission of Bangladesh published a souvenir on the occasion of the International Right to Information day. It contained some interesting facts and updated information.

I will refer to some of the important points:

(a) Till August 2016, a total number of 22,273 government and non-government officials have received training with regard to various facets of the RTI process,

(b) lectures on the RTI paradigm have been given to hundreds of officials undergoing courses in institutions like BPATC, RPATC, BCS (Administration) Academy, and NILG,

(c) training has also been given by the Information Commission to 250 officials from different districts to create potential instructors who can disseminate information about RTI at district level,

(d) with the help of the A2I, the World Bank, and an NGO called D-Net, the Information Commission is updating and up-linking activities related to the implementation of the RTI process in its web portal www.infocom.gov.bd on a regular basis,

(e) the Information Commission in the past six years has published 19 regulatory manuals and reports related to various aspects of its functional matrix, and

(f) to facilitate wider understanding of the RTI Act, it has also been published in Braille for visually handicapped persons, and a summary of the Act has been included as a chapter in the text book on social science for higher secondary school students.

The publication has also mentioned that, since 2009, till 2015, various offices all over Bangladesh received a total of 76,043 requests for information under the RTI process. In 2015, the number of requests to provide information is understood to have been 5,940. Of these 96.33% were to government offices and 3.67% related to NGOs.

It has also been mentioned that from 2009 to 2015, the Information Commission received a total number of 1,450 complaints about not receiving the necessary information from the different offices from where they had sought information. Out of this number, 1,393 complaints have been resolved by the commission.

In principle, the RTI Act, 2009 in Bangladesh was promulgated with some definite objectives. It was hoped that citizens having the right to information along with the power of freedom of speech would help to contribute towards reducing corruption, improving governance, strengthening democracy and accountability, ensuring best use of resources, reducing poverty, and strengthening service providers.

Factors Affecting Implementation

However, after seven years, despite political will of the government, several challenges still affect the effective implementation of the RTI Act. They include:

(a) guaranteeing appointment of designated officers and alternate designated officers, responsible for providing information asked for in all public/autonomous and non-government offices as covered under the Act,

(b) functional development of digital record management through scanning of archives and records,

(c) web-based database for all public institutions and existing NGOs covered under the Act,

(d) establishing the required number of community e-centres at all levels for easy access to development-related information and public services,

(e) strengthening the demand side of RTI,

(f) being able to fully transform the attitude of the bureaucracy,

(g) voluntarily updating disclosure of information on a pro-active basis through respective web portals,

(h) making deliberate denial subject to higher fines and recognising good performance through rewards,

(i) inadequate awareness and knowledge of RTI among designated officers and appellate authorities, and

(j) developing greater digitalisation and preservation of documents in a comprehensive manner, particularly in ministries like Land Records and Home, institutions associated with the judicial process, city corporations and in all local government offices.

At the same time, to ensure greater success in the application of this Act, the concerned authorities should try to promote greater awareness within the population about the objectives of this law. Most of our citizens appear to still lack confidence in seeking and obtaining information as being a part of their inherent right.

There have been revelations in the electronic media that many citizens still want to keep themselves at a safe distance from the authorities to avoid complications.

This is happening despite existing provisions in our RTI Act which is aimed to help citizens in crucial areas. I refer here to Section 9 (4) which stipulates that notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1) and (2), if a request is made under sub-section (1) of Section 8 relating to life and death, arrest and release from jail of any person, the officer-in-charge shall provide preliminary information thereof within 24 hours.

Unfortunately this is not happening most of the time as outlined. In addition, there have also been reluctance on the part of the general citizens in Bangladesh to seek information and re-dress by referring to the provisions in Section 32 (2) which stipulates that notwithstanding anything contained in Section 32 (1), this Section (regarding inapplicability of the RTI Act in case of eight government state security and intelligence agencies) shall not apply to such information that are pertaining to corruption and violation of human rights in these organisations and institutions.

One also needs to refer here to certain other legal provisions and see if action can be taken to amend them: Sections 123, 124, and 125 of the Evidence Act, Section 99 of the Penal Code, 1898, and certain provisions of the Rules of Business, 1996. These sections are affecting the gathering of information.

These issues need to be addressed sooner than later.

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