Right to information is an essential element of a democratic country. Effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels is a precondition to ensure democracy. Moreover, the freedom of thought, conscience and speech is recognised as a fundamental right and the right to information is an alienable part of it. Since all powers of the Republic belong to the people, it is necessary to ensure the right to information for their empowerment.
To ensure transparency and accountability in all public, autonomous, and statutory organisations and of other private institutions constituted or run by government or foreign financing, the civil society organisations constantly pressurise the Government to ensure the Right to Information. Moreover in 2007, Bangladesh had ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption. One of the preconditions of this Convention was to ensure the right to information of the citizens. Under these circumstances, the caretaker Government had enacted The Right to Information Ordinance, 2008 which was enacted in the upcoming year as The Right to Information Act, 2009.
To understand the effective enforcement of this Act, the number of requests for information, complaints and their disposals can be brought into light. As per the report of RTI Bangladesh, till now this year only 25,968 applications were received across the country asking for information until September 30, of which only 114 have been replied. 130 applications are in process and 21,831 have expired (there is no explanation as to the meaning of the term ‘expired’).
Due to the unavailability of the required information at the local level, 38 complaints were lodged with the Information Commission. Of them, not a single complaint has been settled yet. It demonstrates the real scenario of the enforcement power of this Act. Lack of knowledge about the law, lack of workforce, absence of public confidence, and irregularities are the reasons behind it.
Lack of awareness of the law is the main reason why people are not resorting to this Act. Although, the Information Commission as well as some other non-government organisations have taken many steps to aware the mass in this regard such as offering both online and offline trainings, arranging different campaigns and cultural programs, a large number of people are yet unfamiliar with this Act as the message of these programs is not reaching them.
Inadequate manpower is another reason for the failure of implementation of this Act. Although in consonance with Section 10 of the Act, designated officers have been appointed in each institution, but the post of these officers is in addition to their regular duty. These officers do not even receive any additional fee for their services. Thus, the designated officers are often reluctant to provide information, as most of the officers are not committed to provide pro bono service.
Furthermore, even after so many years of enforcement of the Act, the Information Commission has not yet been decentralised. Although provisions have been incorporated to establish branch offices of the Information Commission, not a single branch office has yet been established. Hence, it is burdensome for one office to deal with the demands of 160 million people.
Further irregularities are also major causes as to why people are discouraged to exercise their right to information. In many cases, the respondents often do not appear during the appeal hearings or disposal of complaints. Hence, the appellant or the complainant, as the case may be, has to suffer for an uncertain period, managing time and money to appear before the authority.
In addition, in most of the cases the time limitation for providing information as provided in the Act is not followed by the authority. As a result, although some persistent journalists may succeed in gathering information, it is difficult for the public to obtain information without years of struggle.
To overcome these adversities, raising awareness, strict enforcement of the Act, additional awards for the officers, penalty in case of irregularities and proper engagement of workforce and resources can be more effective.
For raising awareness among the masses, a mobile app can be developed for applying for information and other related queries, as an app is more convenient than websites. In this context, the RTI app of Nepal can be an ideal example. The FreedomForum Nepal has launched a 'Right to Information Act (RTI) Nepal Mobile App’.
The key features of this App include the basic overview and characteristics of RTI, guide to use of RTI, facility for downloading and sharing various options of templates of RTI requests writing, complaints to the chief of public agencies and appeals to the Information Commission. In addition, it provides access to the RTI laws, rules, RTI related publications, news updates, and success stories/case studies, podcasts, opinion pieces with expert feedback and discussion forums for RTI activists and campaigners from across the country. Bangladesh may also launch a similar app and promote the use of the app. As an extended platform, the App can act as a guide for journalists, RTI activists, civil society organisations, human rights advocates to learn and share ideas.
Another effective measure is educating the youths through inclusion of discussions on the right to information through student’s academic curriculum from primary to university level will enlighten and encourage them to resort to this Act.
Strict enforcement of the Act can be made possible by imposing penalty for irregularities of not following the time limitation and non-appearance in hearings of appeals and complaints as per Section 27 of the Act. Virtual sessions should regularly be arranged for quick and cost effective disposal of appeals.
For assurance of better performance of the designated officers, they should be provided with additional fee for providing information. Periodical awards may be arranged to encourage the officers for their efficient performances in this regard. The district and sub-district information committees can be engaged more effectively to supervise the activity of the designated officers.
The Right to Information Act empowers people to hold the authorities accountable for their deeds. If citizens have access to key facts and data from the Government, it will be difficult to hide corruption. Thus, effective implementation of this Act can prevent corruption and secure transparency. The Information Commission, as well as other organisations, must strive diligently to attain these objectives.
Gargi Das Chomok, student, Rajshahi University