Information Act and democracy

Published : 18 Dec 2019 06:07 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 07:57 PM

Democracy is pivotal for the development of any sovereign nation and by definition democracy is a system of government which is elected and run by representatives of the public. So, how does the public elect its representatives? Do they just blindly choose a person by Eeny Meeny Miney Mo? No, rather a careful selective process needs to be followed through analyzing various data and vetting procedure. But where does the public get this data from? That is where the Rights to Information Act 2009 come in.

The Act ensures free flow of information in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The freedom of thought, conscience and speech is recognised in the Constitution 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 right to information for their empowerment. 

The Bangladeshi Right to Information Act (RTI) was inspired from the objective similar to what 115 other countries or states have adopted so far originating from the Swedish politician’s thoughts, “The freedom of a nation cannot be upheld by laws alone, but also by the light of the nation and knowledge of their use.” Since its ascension in 2009, this year it has crossed the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Information Commission of Bangladesh. 

This commission has been working to ensure that transparency and accountability can be provided in all sectors these include, “all public, autonomous and statutory organisations and in private organisations run on government or foreign funding.” 

It would be simplistic to claim that 

the Bangladesh Act is failing. A transparency regime,

 by nature, makes slow progress.

 It takes a long time to break away from a deep-rooted 

culture of official secrecy and change 

people's mindset forged over centuries

According to the Act, “information is in relation to an authority’s constitution, structure and official activities and includes any: memo, book, design, map, contract, data, log book, order, notification, document, sample, letter, report, accounts statement, project proposal, photograph, audio, video, drawing, film, any instrument prepared through electronic process, machine readable documents and any other documentary material regardless of its physical form or characteristics.”

However, not every information can be accessible by the public for instance in section 7 of the Act it states a total of 20 points where information cannot be accessible. The key point out of these is disclosure of information which would be a threat to the security, integrity and sovereignty of Bangladesh. Another point being disclosing information related to any foreign policy, the disclosure of which would lead to harming existing relationships with any foreign state, or international institution or any regional bloc or organisation.

From 2010, the first year of the law, the number of requests for information declined from 25,401 to 6,181 in 2015. Altogether, some 82,412 RTI applications were recorded in eight years until 2017. The number is surely to have declined further now. 

The RTI Act includes a long list of information that should be proactively published, although it does not explicitly mention that such information should be available online. This includes information on decisions, activities, policy related documents and reasons for their adoption. On an annual basis, every authority shall publish a report containing information about its structure and activities, rules and regulations, conditions on accessing services and information on freedom of information officers.

Several groups have noted that the RTI Act has a concrete effect on the ground, a possibility to achieve societal change. However, civil society groups report that implementation of the RTI Act is a challenging process, not least because of the “culture of fear” and the lack of trust. The World Bank has drafted a Strategic plan on implementation of the RTI for 2014-2018, which identifies areas where implementation has stayed behind the promises of the RTI legislation, in particular: lack of awareness, capacity issues, the need for an increased political support, the lack of an internal coordinating body within the Government.

Several groups have noted that the RTI Act has a concrete effect on the ground, a possibility to achieve societal change.

Many NGOs warn that strong demand-side efforts, namely frequent use of the law, is needed for the success of the Act. While the Commission reported that as many as 7,000 requests have been filed in 2012, people are still not sufficiently informed on their right to information. The Commission implemented some wide-ranging awareness campaigns, such as running TV campaigns and sending mobile text messages to the public (250 million free SMS messages have been sent). Nevertheless, more awareness-raising activities among lay and expert public and authorities are needed. On the supply side, two studies have shown that the response rates to RTI requests remain low.

Another serious challenge for implementation of the law is the capacity of governmental agencies, frequent transfers of designated officers and the lack of training for the officers. Constant transfers of RTI officers are not good for the continuity and they also make trainings on implementation of the law less efficient. The question is also whether all authorities liable under the RTI Act designate officers; a special problem arises with private bodies (such as NGOs and internationally funded organisations), where a study from 2001 showed that only 201 from roughly 30,000 such organisations appointed an officer. Nevertheless, the NGOs seem to be better aware of their responsibilities under the RTI Act.

It would be simplistic to claim that the Bangladesh Act is failing. A transparency regime, by nature, makes slow progress. It takes a long time to break away from a deep-rooted culture of official secrecy and change people's mindset forged over centuries.

Md Saifuddin Al Quaderi is working with Bangladesh Post