POST TIME: 20 September, 2020 06:11:11 PM
RTI Act and SDGs
There is no denying the fact that the idea of the rule of law, freedom of expression and good governance are becoming meaningless without access to information
Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed

RTI Act and SDGs

In Bangladesh, the Right to Information (RTI) Act has been enacted in 2009, which is a significant development in the field of promoting human rights and good governance. Although in the Constitution of Bangladesh there is no direct mention about right to information, the preamble of the RTI Act stipulates that the right to information is an essential part of freedom of speech, conscience, and thought which is guaranteed as a fundamental right in Article 39 of the Constitution. As article 7(1) of the Constitution promotes supremacy of the Constitution declaring “all powers of the Republic belong to the people”, right to information is thus necessary to empower people.

Information is prerequisite for humans to perform several activities. It is recognized that knowing and circulating information is very vital for ensuring transparency and accountability of government organs, which now accepted as an indispensable part of any welfare state. It provides public participation in decision making that affects their fundamental human rights. There is no denying the fact that the idea of the rule of law, freedom of expression and good governance are becoming meaningless without access to information.

The purposes of the RTI Act are to increase transparency and accountability, to decrease corruption and established good governance. Such objects cannot be fulfilled without an easy access to information by ordinary people. Section 6 of the RTI Act ensures that every authority should publish and publicize all information related to any executed or proposed activities and decisions in such a manner which can easily be accessible to the citizens. The section also ensures that authorities cannot cancel any information and limit the easy access. The Act has delegated the power to make the regulation to the information commission under section 6(8) regarding the publishing, publicizing and obtaining information. On 30 December 2010, the Commission adopted the Right to Information (Publication and Publicisation of Information) Regulation and fixed the time frame and ways of publishing information. According to Schedule 1 and 2 of the Regulation, the authorities should publish information on their website and internet along with the printed copy, but eight long years have been passed away and the Regulation is barely implemented.

September is an important month for Right to Information (RTI) buffs all over the world. They undertake various activities during the month to commemorate the International Right to Know Day on September 28 with two key focus points. The first one is to remind citizens that the RTI Act provides them with a legal basis to find out if their government is managing the affairs of the state effectively, efficiently and honestly. The second is to remind governments that they have a duty of transparency and accountability towards their citizens, who are entitled to access nearly all information available within public offices. Such interaction between citizens and governments is the hallmark of democracy. Without a healthy balance between the two, democracy cannot flourish. It explains why so many states all over the world, around 130 by the last count, have enacted the RTI Act. By adopting the law, they have sought to enhance their democratic credentials. Adopting the law and making it work are, however, two different things. Many governments enacted the law primarily as "democratic window-dressing" with little interest to open up their records to the people.

Citizens have the highest stake in the success of the law. Among hundreds of laws of the land which governments use to control and regulate citizen behaviour, the RTI Act is one law which allows citizens to control and regulate government behaviour. If citizens fail to apply the law and make it work, governments have little to be blamed of. How has Bangladesh's RTI Act 2009 fared in the 11 years since it came into force? One easy indicator would be to look at the number of RTI applications made over the years. Records show that on an average, around 8,500 RTI applications have been filed annually in the country. Compared with some six million applications annually during the same period in neighbouring India, it is not difficult to conclude that our citizens are yet to wake up to the value of the law and reap its benefits.

Every year, the anniversary provides a good occasion to assess how the law itself and the Information Commission have fared over the years. The exercise is equally important in relation to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030, of which RTI is an integral part. To obtain a good rating when Bangladesh's RTI use is measured against international standards, we must identify the shortfalls and mend them quickly. The practice of rejecting complaints on procedural grounds continues to be a key factor impacting negatively on prospective applicants. The Annual Report shows that 70 out of 175 complaints (40 percent), rejected by the Information Commission was because applications/appeals were not addressed to the right persons. 

The time taken by the Information Commission to resolve complaints sometimes exceed the legal limit of 75 days by many times. It is known to postpone or reschedule hearings frequently at the urging of powerful authorities. This causes much frustrations, lengthy delays, increased expenses and undue suffering to ordinary complainants. A growing practice of the Information Commission to declare a complaint to be “sub judice”, if a writ petition on a similar claim remains pending in the High Court, is another source of frustration. Many complaints are kept hanging on this ground though clear precedents exist. We hope that this analysis of the implementation of RTI in the country would help all concerned—the government, the Information Commission and citizens—to appreciate that the potential of the law can only be achieved through their combined efforts. While there are reasons to worry about the low use of the law, there are also some gleams of hope.

RTI users are conversant with such remarks. Government officials seem unable to reconcile with the fact that there is a law now which gives citizens the right to demand from them all non-exempted information at their disposal, without giving any reason. They are unhappy that their earlier power to withhold any pertinent information from the general public has been revoked by the RTI Act. Some still do not know about the law or perhaps do not want to know. To implement RTI under such circumstances is indeed an uphill task.

The government must provide the necessary moral and ancillary support to help the Information Commission undertake the required corrective measures. It should ensure inclusion of legal expertise in future composition of the Commission. On its part, the Commission must strive to win back citizen's trust by earnestly removing all impediments in the use of the law and setting examples of its own transparency and accountability. It would strengthen our democracy and promote good governance.

The writer is former Deputy Director General, Bangladesh Ansar VDP.