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Freedom of Expression and Right to Information: Empowerment of Common People through Right to Information Act 2009

Chowdhury Mokimuddin KJ Ali & Md. Mamonor Rashid 

The rights to think and speak openly is an imperative issue, access information and hold the powers that be to account, together play a crucial character in the vigorous improvement process of any society. If people cannot explore efficiently their ideas, views, worries and needs, they are often debarred from the momentous contribution in the society.

The right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed under the Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh as one of the fundamental rights (Article 39, the Constitution of The People’s Republic of Bangladesh); and right to information is an indisputable part of freedom of thought, conscience and speech.

On the other hand, the right to freedom of opinion and expression is contained in articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In addition, articles 4 and 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), articles 12 and 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) guarantees the freedom of expression and opinion.

Globally, more than100 countries have enacted right to information (RTI) legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to access information and records held by their governments. Countries like Australia  and New Zealand passed a national right to information law as early as in 1982 (prior to the latest wave of right to information laws’ adoption around the world), later embarking upon legislative reform to bring their freedom of information regimes up to date.

Furthermore, if we shift the focus on South Asia, national right to information legislation in India (passed in 2005) is often cited to exemplify the role that grassroots groups can have in the adoption of this type of legislation, as well as the effect that the exercise of freedom of information can have on people’s lives. In addition, Malaysia (passed in 2005), Nepal (2007), Indonesia (2010), Mongolia (2011) Pakistan (2013), Sri Lanka (2016) have adopted RTI legislation. More recently, RTI bills have been passed in Bhutan and the Maldives. However, Singapore did not take any initiatives to adopt RTI act yet.

To keep up the worldwide drift, the government of Bangladesh adopted the Right to Information Act 2009 in the first session of the ninth parliament on March 29, 2009, marking a momentous step forward in fulfilling the constitutional pledge of the state of Bangladesh. Government has also established an information commission on July 1, 2009 to provide information to the people.

The precondition of the RTI Act was to check ‘empowerment of common people’ through providing information, ensure good governance, transparency and accountability in all public and private organizations since the RTI goes hand in hand with freedom of expression. Civil society, through citizens and the media, can justifiably claim access to information.

As per the mandate of the Act, the Commission consists of a Chief Information Commissioner and two other Information Commissioners including a woman. The President shall appoint them on the recommendation of the Selection Committee comprising of 5 members. The Commissioners shall be selected from amongst the persons with broad knowledge and experience in law, Justice, Journalism, education, science, technology, information, social service, management, or public administration. The Commissioners will hold their office for a period of 5 years or attainment of 67 years and they may resign before completion of the tenure by writing to the President. They can be removed from their office by the President in like manner and on the like grounds as a Judge of the Supreme Court.

Information commission is playing a significant role to resolve the receiving complaints quickly and smoothly. The Annual Report shows that in 2016, some 6,369 requests for information were made to public authorities. Of these, over 95 percent were provided with the information sought. 539 complaints were lodged with the Information Commission by disgruntled information seekers. Of these, 364 were accepted for hearing. The rest were either rejected for faulty submissions or decided without a hearing.  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. (The Daily Star, April 13, 2016)

In fact, RTI Act is actually a large platform for every level of people in the country to access their desired and necessary information seeking for good purposes; the poor and indigent women of remote villages are now getting information of government safety net programs including VGD, VGF cards and maternal health vouchers. Farmers and fishers are now seeking and getting information which promotes their lives and livelihoods. Environmentalists are using RTI Act as a tool to ensure accountability in environmental governance. Victims of natural disasters are getting information about relief and rehabilitation. Even the peoples of marginalized and excluded communities like dalits are now getting information and enjoying their rights.

Nevertheless, information commission with the strong collaboration and support of the Government along with ministry of information should work flexibly to ensure empowerment of common people providing proper and authentic information. Therefore, the following suggestions and recommendations may help to ensure the right to information of a common people;

  • The success of Right to Information Act (RTI) 2009 is closely linked to the level of democracy in a country. In Bangladesh democratic practices are lacking, it is of utmost importance that the government is seen to be fully committed to the ideal of RTI;
  • A paradigm shift in the mind-set of public officials as well as citizens long used to subservient relationships with the authorities is also required for the success of RTI
  • The lack of a tradition of rule of law and the existence of a culture of impunity are detrimental to the promotion of RTI. The importance of using the penalty clause to bring recalcitrant officials has to be proven in Bangladesh.
  • The importance of NGO and media involvement in promoting RTI has to be stoutly demonstrated in Bangladesh. Exchange visits of media personnel and RTI activists may help in this regard.
  • Lack of human resources in information archiving and management has been a major challenge for government and non-government institutions. Public and private institutions need to offer post-employment training programmes on ICT-led information archiving and management.
  • Civil society organizations should come forward with their own information and set examples of transparency. Particularly in Bangladesh NGOs have been brought in to the purview of RTI and are subject to the same scrutiny as government offices.

Chowdhury Mokimuddin is the Head of Chambers “CM&A LCP”

M Rahsid is an Associate of “CM&A LCP”

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