Sunday, October 9, 2011

Right of Information: Theory and reality

As I See It
The Independent
October 8, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Every morning, I pass by my own former place of employment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then the office of the Director-General of Education and the Bangladesh Secretariat. I see how serious all these three places are to keep their distance from the public. In fact, in recent times, the Bangladesh Secretariat has fortified its compound more so as to make access of the public even more difficult.

It is not just perceptions that I draw from what I see from the outside. My own experience in gathering information in the Froeign Ministry is a mixed one. From one senior officer, I received both cooperation and courtesy for information I sought and from another, neither. In fact, the latter was downright rude. He neither heard of RTI nor cared about it.

The observations are to put the RTI with which the Government is making some loud noises, in proper context. As the government, or more precisely, the National Information Commission, is projecting the RTI, one could be led to believe that a revolution in democracy has been achieved in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, like most developing countries that were colonies of western powers, has faced tremendous difficulties in transforming its government from its role in the colonial days as an oppressor of people’s rights to its upholder. RTI is the end of the process of that transformation with other elements such as right to vote freely and fairly, guarantee of all forms of freedom being those that have come earlier and achieved more easily.

RTI has been the most difficult to achieve because it challenges the government directly in governance. Under such issues as “official secrecy” and security, most former colonies in reality did not behave like their peoples’ tryst with colonial power was over. In fact, many governments started behaving like new colonial masters. India, considered as a role model in conversion from colony to democracy, is a case in point.

The constitution of India has guaranteed its people all rights no less than the advanced democracies when it was adopted after India became independent in 1947. Yet, it was only in the year 2002, that India adopted the Freedom of Information Act that never came into effective force because of complications. Separately, in the 1990s, the Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sanghatana (MKSS) carried out a RTI movement seeking transparency in government’s action in the grass roots level in village accounts.

MKSS’ efforts were so successful that it inspired national level civil society activists and groups to seek a national RTI Act. In the late 1990s, the Congress became interested in the movement. Sonia Gandhi herself took interest and made it a part of Congress’ election promises. Upon replacing the BJP, the Congress led Government enacted the RTI Act in 2005.

In India, the RTI has been assisted by the strength of its parliamentary democracy and politics; strong and independent media; and independent courts not subjected to government or party influence. Above all, the RTI Act has been complemented by a mindset in India where even the members of the ruling party know that they are not above the law when caught in act of corruption or acting against the interest of the people.

The force of the RTI was brought to focus in India recently when it netted top government functionaries in a manner that had the Congress led Government in deep crisis. A document secured under RTI written by an officer of the Ministry of Finance suggested that P. Chidambaram as Finance Minister could have interfered to get the telecommunications Minister A Raja to cancel the 2G licenses that eventually became as the “2G spectrum scam” involving a loss of 22 billion British pounds, the biggest corruption case ever in Indian history for which A Raja could spend his life in jail.

Our RTI Act has all the potentials and possibilities of the Indian RTI but in theory only. No serious civil society movement went into the enactment of the Act. It has been Government sponsored. Although we have a press capable of supporting the RTI to become a strong force in our democracy; we do not have the quality of parliamentary politics and strength of the courts that India and other countries have where RTI has taken roots.

Under the RTI, all our Ministries are supposed to have a Public Information Officer modeled after India to whom the public can apply for information and documents. I have no idea if our Ministries have such an officer. If they have, the fortresses that our Ministries are, I am not so sure how they would access the officer to get their rights under the RTI. Quite often, we see the Information Commissioner, a former colleague; speak eloquently at seminars and talk shows. I am afraid he faces a humungous task for on his shoulders, the nation has placed the task that in India is being carried out with the support of its quality politics; its media; its courts; its active civil society and a mindset in government and politics that has changed to make space for citizen’s RTI.

In Bangladesh, it is the quality of our politics that imposes the most difficult challenge for a RTI Act ever to become an important element of establishing democracy in the country. Even if we have the PIO in every Ministry, it is absurd to even think that he would release any document to the public that could embarrass a Minister or anyone with links to the ruling party. The reader should spare a moment and consider his chances of seeking information or documents from the PMO concerning the actions of the Prime Minister and her officials that could be source of embarrassment or political trouble.

There are numerous ways in the hands of the bureaucracy if it wants to or existing conditions compel it, to avoid what has happened in Indian politics recently with the Home Minister P Chidambaram. It is politics and mindset that are the most important factors for RTI to be successful. In Bangladesh, politics and mindset that are the two important impediments to RTI are not likely to change, not at any time in the near future. What we are likely to get for the time being is information and document under RTI to hang opposition when they were in power and innocuous and benign information and documents related to the ruling party.

The civil society that in India has been the prime force for the successful RTI movement is divided in Bangladesh on party lines, almost completely. Hence, it too cannot help in establishing RTI. Therefore, the government sponsored RTI in Bangladesh will be little more than an exercise in theory until the quality of politics achieves a paradigm shift. Meanwhile, government offices will continue to find physical ways too to keep the public out.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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