The Gross National Product (GDP) does not reflect the true integration of social welfare to the people as seen in China where its own government statistics show that the country has the maximum number of social riots, said Dr Gopakumar Thampi, CEO, Affiliated Network for Social Accountability of South Asia and the Global Partnership Fund, Bangladesh, at a lecture given by him on “Right to Information” last week in Colombo.
He said that it is the price of transparency and a strong tool for democracy as information about the government is essential for citizens to make informed choices in elections. Access to information is the key to responsive consultative democracy: Political leaders are more likely to act in accordance with the wishes of the electorate if they know that their actions can be constantly scrutinized by citizens. There can be no democratic participation of the people in decision-making without transparency and sharing information.
He said that history has always been a struggle between those who suppress information and those who fight to extract them.
Dr Thampi said that Right to Information (RtI) is a fundamental right and the ‘touchstone’ of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is enshrined. RtI is important as a tool for the fulfillment of human rights and for good governance.
He said that RtI is recognized as a fundamental human right in a number of international and national human rights instruments such as Article 19 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
RtI could be used as a tool to build informed opinion, which is necessary to exercise the right to freedom of expression and right to education. Freedom of Expression could be used by the parents to challenge the basis on which school admission is denied, to find out about welfare entitlements and to expose the fraudulent selection of beneficiaries – Right to Food.
RtI is a tool for effective and efficient governance with transparency and could be used to stem corruption and cause accountable.
In essence RtI is the entitlement of citizens to seek and receive information which is held by or under control of public authorities. It is the obligation of the state to meet the information requests of citizens, unless previously denied exceptions apply. It is the duty of the government to proactively provide certain key information.
Dr Thampi said that access to information is all about individuals (eg certificate of birth, educational records) which information could benefit individuals –information that affects the well-being of the individuals as a member of the society in the field of politics, social welfare, health, education, environment, development, planned investment, security, justice etc.
He said that media access to official information is a right of civil servants to “blow the whistle” such as publication of information about any wrongdoing in the institutions they work for.. The core principles are – maximum disclosure, obligation to publish, promotion of open government, limited scope of exemptions, processes to facilitate accesses, reasonable costs and disclosure takes precedence.
He said that RtI could help the citizens by questioning how public funds have been utilized like a parent can challenge the basis on which school admission is given, a pensioner can check personal records held by the government or a business can check how tenders have been awarded.
He said that there should be legislation on RtI in place which would generate strength and gave examples where Acts have been promulgated in India – Internal emergency; Pakistan – ADB Conditionality; Nepal – Interim Constitution and Bangladesh – Caretaker Government.