It has been over four years since Nepal ratified the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Although its provisions are yet to be fully implemented, the RTI issue gained significant publicity last year when a request by a Kathmandu-based NGO forced the government into publishing the names of agencies evading tax through forged VAT bills.
Right to Information technically means legally ensured access to information, especially public documents held by government or any public bodies. So far, more than 85 countries have adopted Right to Information legislations in one form or the other. Nepali RTI Act (ratified by Parliament in July 2007) defines Right to Information as a legal condition in which “all citizens have access to information and documents held by public bodies”.
In 1766, Sweden pioneered the process of legally recognizing the public´s right to information through its Freedom of the Press Act. Even as it came under the Freedom of the Press Act, the legislation sought to ensure ‘public’ access to information or records held by government bodies. Nearly two and a half centuries down the line, nearly half the countries in the world have implemented RTI (also called freedom of information) legislation. Experts in RTI, however, also believe that these laws set ceiling on what can be assessed.
In modern society, Right to Information is widely regarded as a tool to promote good governance, social accountability, transparency and fair public practices in public life. Right to Information is also regarded as a fundamental human right. The United Nations, in its very first General Assembly in 1946, adopted Resolution 59 (1) stating that “freedom of information is a fundamental human right and…the touch-stone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”
The importance of Right to Information movements across nations are primarily perceived through their scope in creating a more open and transparent society by promoting the sharing of information; reducing poverty by feeding clear information even to the poor and marginalized sections of the society; and challenging corruption and political/bureaucratic irregularities through informed assessments of actions.
Right to Information is a basic citizen right. It cannot be denied under vague pretexts of the imperatives of maintaining official secrecy.
In Nepal, RTI legislation came as a culmination of more than a decade of various campaigns and initiatives. Although brought as a separate legislation and not linked to the freedom of the press, the media community, especially journalism professionals, took a lead in influencing the policy debate in this regard. A couple of draft bills prepared earlier had failed to take the shape of legislation, due primarily to the government machinery´s covert wish to regulate the information flow rather than making them open and easily accessible.
That the government machinery is still ‘secretive’ as far as the question of flow of information is concerned was once again demonstrated by the VAT bill episode last October. Otherwise, what had come as an official report formally drafted by a responsible government panel would not have taken as many as eight months to reach the public. It may be noted that the probe panel´s report on tax evasion through forged VAT bills was submitted last March.
Last year, Tribhuvan University was similarly ‘secretive’ when it denied one of its students access to his own examination papers in order to check for the marks distribution pattern. Even though the National Information Commission (NIC) has ruled that students ought to be given access to their examination papers if they want to see them, TU authorities still tend to interpret the ruling as impractical and in contravention of the confidentiality of its examination standard and marks grading system.
Clearly, the biggest hindrance to effective practice of Right to Information in Nepal seems to be the misunderstanding among public bodies that consider RTI Act as something directly opposed to the traditional practice of keeping ‘official secrets’. In fact, nothing can remain ‘official secret’ for long time, except the material categorized as ‘sensitive’ (which could pose serious threat to national security, integrity, international relations, inter-cultural harmony, crime investigation, intellectual property, individual´s life and health, as well as matters relating to monetary and commercial confidentialities.) And here too, the RTI Act clearly states that the public bodies cannot shy away from their responsibility of providing reliable information except on conditions that demonstrate “reasonable and sufficient ground” for withholding such information
[Clause 3.3 (e)].
Thus, respecting the citizen´s right to information, facilitating and promoting public access to information, ensuring regular updates and flow of information and making one´s work open and transparent are enshrined as major responsibilities of public bodies in the Nepali RTI Act. Unfortunately, the officialdom seems to be lagging far behind in acknowledging the positive intent behind the Act. Public officials’ half-hearted response to RTI drives and their big egos, easily bruised when the public gets to know something ahead of them, are hampering its effective implementation. Just note the dismay of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee after the VAT Bill forgery report reached Tara Nath Dahal, chairman of Freedom Forum, ahead of it.
PAC members apparently regretted (“expressed surprise”, to quote Nagarik daily´s Page 3 news on Nov 1, 2011) that the Ministry of Finance had given the document to an ordinary citizen, although the same was denied to it on multiple requests. Apparently, the parliamentarians did not know that it was the RTI Act which they themselves (read the Parliament) had ratified on July 18, 2007, which allowed the public uninterrupted access of information. Do our parliamentarians think laws are applicable only for subjects?
Documents testify that Freedom Forum Chairman Dahal succeeded in receiving the document after going through seven different procedures of appeals and re-appeals over a span of six months. Initially, the ‘ordinary citizen’ was verbally shooed away; in his second attempt, he was rejected through an official letter.
In the third, he appealed to the high commands of Ministry of Information; in the fourth he had to take recourse of the National Information Commission; in the fifth he had to listen to the Ministry’s bogus justifications for turning down his request; in the sixth he tendered a note of dissatisfaction and appealed the NIC for action; eventually, on his seventh attempt, the NIC issued its ruling and Dahal got his hands on the much-coveted document. The result: the public got to know about how different organizations evade tax by submitting forged VAT bills, resulting in losses worth millions to state coffers. And who gained? Directly, the state, but indirectly, all of us because judicious exercise of RTI promotes accountability and transparency in all state organs and facilitates service delivery.
The writer is Head, Department of English, RR Campus, Kathmandu
No Act, RTI or otherwise will be implemented in their fullest form till such time that all institutions under our democratic polity are nurtured and allowed to flourish by our political leaders. These so-called self-serving leaders live and function with a medieval feudal mindset and hence do not understand that for true democracy to develop they need to understand and accept that they are where they are, because of the public´s trust and they have been placed there to serve the public and
Pabitra Pradhan Karki
There is a rumor that Mr. Dahal from Freedom Forum did not have MA degree in journalism hence denied him of possibility of being nominated as the member of National Information Commission. Can we use RTI to find out his academic credentials?