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DHAKA Monday 22 October 2012, 07 Kartik 1419, BS 05 Zilhajj 1433 HIJRI
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RTI: A vehicle for people’s empowerment
Dr Sadeka Halim
 The more closely we are watched, the better we behave’ (Jeremey Bentham, 1748-1832).The passing of RTI (Right to Information) Act in the first session of 9th parliament session has given people of Bangladesh the opportunity to seek information from all public bodies. Civil society regarded the passing of the Act as the ground breaking decision of the government. The rationale of this Act is since all powers of the Republic belong to the people, it is necessary to ensure right to information for their empowerment. The spirit of democracy and the right to information is considered as a fundamental human right everywhere in the world. Access to information has the potential to empower people to engage themselves meaningfully in the democratic process with a view to increasing transparency and accountability in the mechanisms of governance, reducing corruption and more generally achieving the development goals. The aim of this Act is that it would ensure the transparency and accountability of all pubic, autonomous and statutory organisations and of their private institutions as well corruption of these organisations will be reduced. Although the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh does not make a clear reference on right to information, but several articles such as 7, 32 and 39 lays the foundation of recognising it as a right. In particular, Article 39 (2) states that “a right of every citizen of freedom of speech and expression and b) freedom of the press guaranteed.” However, 39 (2) states, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence...... (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh).

The major opportunity is that RTI Act could most effectively be catalyst for institutionalising democracy, promotion of good governance and control of corruption. It is about empowerment of citizens and about building responsiveness of the state and its organs, the political parties and leaderships, administration and other institutions to the citizens. The RTI Act (Section 4) says that “every citizen has a right to information from the Authority and the Authority shall on demand from a citizen be bound to provide information.” Thus it creates the opportunity for those in power to devolve it through sharing of information. In regard to the RTI information means any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in forces [Sec 2(f)]. It is to be noted that information does not include office note sheet or photocopies of note sheets.

The RTI Act has eight Chapters and 37 Articles. The RTI Act has the power to override of any existing law (Sec 3). The provisions of providing information shall not be affected by the provisions of this Act; and the provisions creating impediment in providing information shall be superseded by the provisions of this Act if they become conflicting with the provisions of this Act. Earlier in Bangladesh government did not have any specific ordinance that related to directly to people’s right to know. Rather as pointed out by former law minister Abdul Matin Khasru were prohibited by certain clauses. These clauses are The Official Secrets Act 1923, Evidence Act 1872, Rules of Business 1996, Government Service (Conduct) Rules 1979, and the oath (affirmation) of secrecy under the constitution act as an impediment and barrier to getting access to information.

The clause 5[1] of The Official Secrets Act has been designed to protect military and strategic secrets on many occasions. It has been the most popular excuse of the government officials to deny information. Section 5[1] also states “If any person having in his possession or control any secret ... (means information) ...(a) wilfully communicates ...(b) uses the information ...(C) retains the information...(d) fails to take reasonable care of ...he shall be guilty of an offence under this section.” The recent Rules of Business specifically bars government officials from disclosing information to members of press. Certainly, government servants are still bound by both their oath and service rules to refrain from disclosing information. However, through the RTI Act section (3) while citizens would seek for information all these restrictions can be override; except in regard to exemptions listed in Article 7 of the RTI ACT.

Despite all these limitations, Right to Information Act, 2009 has given people more opportunity to participate in public affairs and hold duty bearers accountable for their action. It is promoting transparency, openness and opportunities for dialogue and discussions on critical issues between the general people and policy making authorities. Traditionally, participation in political and economic processes and the informed choices are restricted to small bureaucratic elites in developing countries. The RTI 2009 has enabled people of all strata to seek information from various government and non-government offices. People who are failing to get information from DOs (Designated Officials) and appellate authority on time provided by the Act have started since 2010 to launch complaints to the IC (Information Commission). Through the practice of RTI in Bangladesh, transparency of government institutions have begun. In regard to article 9(2) of RTI Act the government and non-government DOs are required to provide the applicants information; if applicants are not given information or gets rejected aggrieved by the decision of the appeal units then under section 24 complaints for not receiving information can be filed to IC. This provision of RTI is one of the major steps towards establishing transparency and accountability in Bangladesh.

IC follows civil procedure (in accordance to 1908) to dispose the complaints. The first petitioner was BELA who sought information from Rajuk in regard to construction of BGMEA building and it’s approved building plan. Later BELA received the required information. Most petitioners came from disadvantaged people who failed to get information on old age allowance, special safety net programme, regarding the free distribution of medicines by the community hospitals, rules and regulations to obtain agricultural cards, information about the location of khas land, allegations against cooperative officer, information in regard to the rules of medical practitioners, practice of minimum wage, bank related issues, and so forth. In addition adivasis are as well seeking justice from IC. An adivasi activist sought information on the quota provided for the adivasi students by various public universities and other educational institutions. IC disposed the cases by providing the information through the DOs who previously not attended or rejected the complainers’ prayers. The IC received 266 complaints till date and out of which 96 cases are being disposed of. Some 22 complaints have not been accepted by the IC to hold hearing. Major causes for rejecting those cases are where the applicant directly complained without seeking the information from the DO and appellate authority; information seekers did not apply to the proper authority; only sent copy of the application to the IC where information was sought and not following RTI procedures and so forth. Nevertheless, IC constantly takes initiatives to rectify the incorrect applications by contacting with the applicant. Also IC is very proactive in regard to the appointment of DOs in both Govt/NGO sectors. A small number of women launched complaints with IC only seven (2.63%) which is very low. In a society which is dominated by the culture of patriarchy, male domination, male supremacy and conservatism, RTI can actually empower women if women could make effective utilisation of this Act. For instance, Tahera Begum of Sayeedpur upazila by using RTI sought a photocopy list of tortured women who lodged complaint in Sayeedpur police station from January to June in 2011. The DO received her application without giving her a receipt/acknowledgement. Later, she, with the assistance of a development worker from Research Initiative Bangladesh on July 30, 2011, sent the same application through registered mail to the Sayeedpur Thana. When she failed to get the information in 20 working days she appealed in accordance to section 24 of the Act to the appellate authority (Police Super of Nilphamarey) requesting to provide her the information. Being failed further to get information from the authority in light of the section 25 of the RTI Act she complained to the IC for not getting the information. During the hearing under oath Tahera mentioned that she not only failed to get information according to RTI Act from DO but also encountered a lot of problems. The DO of Sayeedpur thana under oath denied that he did not get any application from Tahera in that respective thana. Rather he learnt about Tahera’s appeal by the summon sent by IC. The DO (Officer in-charge) brought all required information on hearing day along with him and the case was declared as disposed of.

However, while processing the cases IC is observing that the government offices will have to change the way the government machineries operate, it is also necessary to keep efficient computerised records of everything for rapid release of information. Also information needs to be stored in terms of categorisation/typologies of information. Government offices and NGOs registered with the government that have also been considered under the same law, will need a totally new budget and will need to introduce a new section to disseminate information.

The other important concern is the role of the designated officers in charge to provide information. During the hearings by IC in dealing with most cases it has been found that DOs informally require a nod from the appellate authority to provide information to the applicant. DOs are at times suffer from fear factor and reluctant to provide information without prior consent from their respective authorities. It could be because their ACR (annual confidential report) is being evaluated by their respective higher authority. Thus the release of information depends on the superior authority. In addition DOs can be penalised as mentioned in the section 27 for providing misleading information, false information and not giving information at all by 20 or 30 working days. Two DOs already have been penalised by the IC. Nevertheless, IC is empowered by section 27(3) to recommend departmental action against appellate authority for not cooperating with DOs and not providing information at all. Further, there are some limitations faced by information seekers particularly the marginalised people yet to know in regard to seeking information that who is responsible for what and have to encounter power structures that are still not people friendly.

RTI is empowered by the provision that no authority shall conceal any information or limit its easy access (except 8 exempted security and intelligence agencies, as is the case in other countries including India). It should be kept in mind that majority of the people do not have access to Internet; thus information should be disclosed in such a manner (e.g. through publications, bill boards, citizen charter, etc) where people living in remote areas could learn about it. However, in regard to disclosing information there needs to be coordination between Freedom of Information and Protection of Individual Privacy (provided by Art 7). Recently, 39 NGOs in collaboration with USAID, PROGATI and MRDI have developed proactive policy for their respective organisations. IC in collaboration with MJF has assisted four leading ministries to update and develop website for their respective departments. However, multinational companies have been left out from the ACT. There is demand from the civil society to incorporate them in the Act since these companies uses country’s domestic resources for profit making purposes.

The benefits of RTI must reach all levels of society. Particularly, developing countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka where most of the people live below poverty line; the biggest challenge is how to reach them? This is essentially one of the major reasons for demanding RTI implementation units to be set across the country. Considering also literacy rate, IC in Bangladesh needs to go for large scale awareness through various mechanisms like Radio, TV spots, News papers, Billboards, Popular Theatre, and ensure access to information at the grassroots. Information and service centres’ exist in almost every country and Bangladesh is not an exception, in this regard. They exist under a variety of names that reflect their diversity and richness. At community level both govt./non-govt. service providers exist and disseminate information to the rural community through various methods e.g. text contents, multimedia contents, use of mobile phones, Internet, provide printing services, operators read out news papers preserved in digital format to the illiterate people. E-UP (Union Parishad) could be a good opportunity for the government of Bangladesh and as well for India (through panchaytas) and others to introduce e-Government at Local level Government Institutions (LGIs) to strengthen their capacity in Bangladesh.

ICTs (Information Communication Technologies) along with RTI can support the UP to perform these civic functions like informing people about the services, setting up web notice board that will include all the relevant UP information like budget allocation or block grant given for that UP area and which could lead to check whether corruption is occurring in those projects. Also can publish new development schemes; preserve all information about local people and resources through data base, relief and Vulnerable Group Distribution (VGD), birth registration etc. Further, CR (Community Radio) in this regard can play a remarkable role. Main objective is to serve the backward community or socially excluded groups. When country has very limited access to the social function and information; importance of CR cannot be overlooked. Particularly CR will be addressing issues on women’s empowerment, climate change, education, encouraging parents to send children in school, etc.

E-governance along with the practice and use of RTI in the region would enhance people’s participation in the spectrum of state policy making thereby giving democracy a better foundation. RTI needs to be placed in a strategic framework and a plan of action with specific time frame. The impact and implementation of RTI depends on research and monitoring. Both the print and electronic media and a number of organisations are working at grass root level to create mass awareness on people’s RTI and use for such a law.

Experiences from other neighbouring countries show that RTI is resisted by political elites, business elites, vested interest group, NGOs, media and civil society for polarisation and lack of unity. Therefore, strong political commitment is required in implementation of RTI. Atal Bihari Bajpai, the ex Prime Minister of India, said, “The government wants to share power with the humblest; it wants to empower the weakest. It is precisely because of this reason that the RTI has to be ensured for all.” Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh sees enactment of RTI Act as an epoch-making incident in Bangladesh history. She believes it will greatly help establish accountability and transparency in every sphere of society and administration and the government will continue to work to safeguard the people’s right to information.

The writer is Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka and Information Commissioner (on deputation).
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