Improving different aspects of the RTI Act, 2009

Published : 14 Dec 2021 08:39 PM | Updated : 25 Dec 2021 02:32 PM

Some have raised questions as to whether the RTI process is working. The answer is yes and no.

The evolving dynamics within the New World Economic Order prompted the unelected government of Bangladesh to adopt Right to Information as a part of its governance dynamics through an Ordinance on 20 October, 2008. Subsequently, the elected government took necessary steps to enact the Right to Information Act, 2009 during the first session of the new Parliament. This approval came on 29th March, 2009 and it became part of nearly 1,100 separate laws that create our legal structure.

The RTI as a measure has been adopted in South Asia by Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan and most recently by Sri Lanka on 4 August, 2016, when its Parliament certified that they had “duly passed” their RTI Bill and henceforth it was a law. Unlike other countries who follow the Westminster form of government, the Bill duly enacted by Sri Lanka's Parliament did not have to go to the Head of the State for his/her assent, to become law. A certification on the Bill appended by the Speaker of the Parliament under Article 79 of the Sri Lankan Constitution was enough to make it a law. There is public support for effective access to information in Bhutan, but till now that country’s government has refrained from adopting any law to that effect. Maldives has also been hampered in becoming a partner in the RTI framework because of the general instability in their governance structure. Afghanistan, a member of the SAARC, has yet to take the necessary steps to be part of the Freedom of Information paradigm. The World Bank on several occasions has tried to persuade the relevant authorities in that country to take the requisite measures but has failed due to obdurate opposition from the existing tribal structures.

I will refer to some of the important points- (a) till August, 2018, a total number of nearly 26,200 government and non-government officials have received training with regard to various facets of the RTI process, (b) lectures on the RTI paradigm have been given to hundreds of officials undergoing courses in institutions like BPATC, RPATC, BCS (Adminis­tration) Academy and NILG, (c) training has also been given by the Information Commission to nearly 600 Officials from different Districts to create potential Instructors who can disseminate information about RTI at District level, (d) with the help of the A2I , the World Bank and an NGO called D-Net, the Information Commission is up-dating and up-linking on a regular basis activities related to the implementation of the RTI process in its web portal- , (e) the Information Commission in the past six years has published more than 20 regulatory manuals and reports  related to various aspects of its functional matrix and (f) to facilitate wider understanding of the RTI Act, it has also been published in Braille for visually handicapped persons and a summary of the Act has been included as a chapter in the text book on Social Science for Higher Secondary school students.

It may also be noted that since 2009 till now, various Offices all over Bangladesh received a total of nearly 94,000 requests for information under the RTI process. These requests were sent to government offices and also to NGOs. It may also be mentioned that since 2009 the Information Commission has received a total number of nearly 2,000 complaints about not receiving the necessary information from the different Offices from where they had sought information. Out of this number more than 1,600 complaints have been resolved by the Commission.

In principle, the RTI Act, 2009 in Bangladesh was promulgated with some definite objectives. It was hoped that citizens having the right to information along with the power of freedom of speech would help to contribute towards- reducing corruption, improving governance, strengthening democracy and accountability, ensuring best use of resources, reducing poverty and strengthening service providers.

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However, after nearly ten years, despite the political will of the government, several challenges still affect the effective implementation of the RTI Act.

They include (a) guaranteeing appointment of Designated Officers and Alternate Designated Officers- responsible for providing information asked for- in all public/autonomous and non-Government Offices as covered under the Act, (b) functional development of digital record management through scanning of archives and records, (c) web based database for all Public institutions and existing NGOs covered under the Act, (d) establishing the required number of community e-centers at all levels for easy access to development-related information and public services, (e) strengthening the demand side of RTI, (f) being able to fully transform the attitude of the bureaucracy, (g) voluntarily updating disclosure of information on a pro-active basis through respective web portals, (h) making deliberate denial subject to higher fines and recognizing good performance through rewards, (i) inadequate awareness and knowledge of RTI among Designated Officers and Appellate Authorities, and (j) developing greater digitalization and preservation of documents in a comprehensive manner particularly in Ministries like Land Records and Home, institutions associated with the judicial process, City Corporations and in all Local Government offices.

At the same time, to ensure greater success in the application of this Act, the concerned authorities should try to promote greater awareness within the population about the objectives of this law. Most of our citizens appear to still lack confidence in seeking and obtaining information as being a part of their inherent right. There have been revelations in the electronic media that many citizens still want to keep themselves at a safe distance from the authorities to avoid complications.

This is happening despite existing provisions in our RTI Act which is aimed to help citizens in crucial areas.. I refer here to Section 9 (4) which stipulates that notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1) and (2), if a request is made under sub-section (1) of Section 8 relating to life and death, arrest and release from jail of any person, the Officer-in-charge shall provide preliminary information thereof within 24 hours. Unfortunately this is not happening most of the time as outlined. In addition, there have also been reluctance on the part of the general citizens in Bangladesh to seek information and redress by referring to the provisions in Section 32 (2) which stipulates that notwithstanding anything contained in Section 32 (1), this Section ( regarding inapplicability of the RTI Act in case of eight government State security and Intelligence agencies) shall not apply to such information that are pertaining to corruption and violation of human rights in these organizations and institutions. 

One also needs to refer here to certain other legal provisions and see if action can be taken to amend them- Sections 123, 124 and 125 of the Evidence Act, Section 99 of the Penal Code, 1898 and certain provisions of the Rules of Business, 1996. These sections are affecting the gathering of information.

These issues need to be addressed sooner than later.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance

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