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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 180
July 31, 2010

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Implementing the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2009

Fayazuddin Ahmad

IN Bangladesh the right to information is citizens' constitutional right (Article 7, 11 and 39). As a consequence of the long-term advocacy the draft of the Right to Information Ordinance in 2008 was enacted which later ratified by the parliament on March 29, 2009. It went into full effect on 1 July, 2009. In strengthening its democratic governance capacity Bangladesh is now at the porch of immense possibility to establish a transparent and participatory system of governance. The RTI law will further strengthen this process giving people the opportunity to participate in public affairs. It also creates opportunities for more dialogue and discussions on critical national issues.

Under the law every citizen has the right to have access to information regarding any government and non-government organisation, with the exception of a few national security and intelligence agencies and of twenty categories. While it also mentions that organisations related to intelligence and national security are obliged to release information regarding corruption and violation of human rights.

Using RTI, the general population can demand information as a right on issues such as the budget allocation for the upazila or the amount of funds allocated and spent in constructing roads, schools, hospitals, etc. The law enabled the general population to hold elected representatives accountable for their promises and pledges and government functionaries accountable as per government rules of business. Information on government entitlements, safety net programs, allocation to local government are what people want to know and profit from in a RTI regime. Information commission is the institution created by the law ensuring its operation.

The information commission (IC) is headed by the chief information commissioner (CIC), with the other two commissioners. The Act (Section 13) enabled them to work independently and without interference. It is obligated to lay down guidelines to be followed by the authorities for managing and publishing information ensuring mass people's access. It has the authority of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedures 1908. For appropriate operation the RTI Rules and Regulations have been enacted already.

It is imperative that a strong enforcement mechanism is set in place. Probable interventions to assist the Commission in the primary phase will be to enhance its organizational and human capacity to enable it to deal with the immediate challenges. Medium term interventions could include training of key personnel, from the Commission, government, media and other stakeholders and create and disseminate relevant manuals to unleash the potential of this Act as an empowerment tool. The long-term strategic role of an intervention should be to relate the importance of information in making effective development decisions through consultation and debates by the government and other stakeholders.

The first task of the GoB and IC is to develop and publish a detailed plan of action identifying specific activities with timelines and by whom. It should be planned in a way that all activities are consistent across the government. It will also ensure that the bureaucracy cannot ignore their responsibilities for implementation will be responsible for ensuring government implementation activities.

The Jamaican Access to Information Act was passed in 2002. Even before the legislation came into force, the Government created a unit building appropriate personnel's capacity. Its training agenda included exposing officials to the fundamentals of change management, the details of the law and information management. Though we recently have the law there is already some experience in developing and implementing effective training programmes for Designated Officers.

Experiences have shown that government would do well to develop strategies which promote government-community implementation partnerships. For example, in India, some old state laws required the creation of a Right to Information Council, comprised of officials as well as members of the community. The Right to Information Councils was tasked with monitoring implementation and making recommendations to the government for removing barriers to access.

The confusions created by the continued existence of restrictive legislation sometimes makes it hard for public officials to know exactly how much to disclose under the new law. If one law tells them to release information but another tells them they will be prosecuted for any unauthorised disclosures, officials will most likely slip up on the side of caution and continue to withhold information. RTI law focuses primarily on getting information out of government. They are not always entirely comprehensive, such that other aspects of open government may need to be addressed through separate rules and regulations. It can assure that the issues are given proper treatment and due importance.

To make sure that the law is applied consistently by all officials across all bodies it is important that effective systems and processes are put in place. New information technology can provide opportunities for innovation. The key is to ensure that implementers put their minds to developing materials, systems, tools and processes which will make implementing the law as easy as possible for officials, and reduce the time and effort they need to invest. In turn, this will help reduce bureaucratic opposition while promoting better compliance.

One of the basics for ensuring right to information are records-papers, documents, files, notes, materials, videos, audio tapes, samples, computer printouts, disks and a range of other similar items of data storage. Records are a government, as well as a public, asset. They contain the evidence that helps citizens understand the 'how' of governmental actions and the 'why' of official decisions. Without an effective system for creating, managing, storing and archiving records, implementation of the law will be more easily said than done. It will be harder to reply to applications within the time limits set by the law, if the information requested cannot be located in a timely manner.

To ensure that the law is achieving the aims endorsed by the Government, it is important that implementation of the Act is supported by an effective ongoing monitoring and evaluation system. Information Commissions can then regularly assess whether authorities are meeting their obligations under the Act. They can identify public authorities which perhaps require additional training- for example, because statistics show that they are regularly missing deadlines for disposing of applications or appeals.

Over time, this will help streamline application processing and reduce costs in administering the law. In order to be able to collect sufficient data to meaningfully assess compliance, it is essential for all public authorities to immediately put in place proper monitoring systems. The United Kingdom developed a simple computer-based monitoring system, which utilises Microsoft Access databases to enable officials to input data about every application and appeal they deal with. Upcoming IC's web portal may create this and number of other avenues in future.

Important government information is often in writing, but this form of communication is inaccessible for unlettered citizens for whom verbal communications are their main source of information. Information must be made easily digestible. It must also be comprehensible to populations that are linguistically diverse. Countries have innovated to meet challenges of remoteness by holding regular community level meetings in rural areas; using wall newspapers posted at local council centres, schools, post offices and community centres to disseminate key messages etc. Mass media, certainly, provides a singularly effective means for information dissemination.

The government may request the parliamentary committee to review and examine how well legislation is being implemented. Other bodies involved in implementation or law reform may also be tasked with assessing the law's effectiveness. In Australia for example, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee reviewed the national Freedom of Information Act almost 20 years after it was passed.

The enactment of the RTI Act has been a major step towards a democratic government. But, without a strong political commitment to implementation, backed by proper resources and strategies to breakdown longstanding cultures of secrecy, the effectiveness of the law will be severely impeded. Rights providers and holders are both essential parts of the RTI equation and it is primarily the government's responsibility to ensure that the supply side functions effectively and efficiently. If officials are still resistant to openness, if information is still not managed properly, applications will be processed slowly.

Proper investment in the system and the process at the outset will reap its own rewards over time. Opening up government will streamline many governance processes, improve bureaucratic efficiency, reduce corruption, support economic growth and foreign investment and result in better-targeted development initiatives. All of these outcomes have tangible financial benefits as well as contributing to the overall well being of the national democracy.

The writer is an Advocate and Legal Analyst.


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