If the schedule has been kept, the long awaited Right to Information (RTI) Bill should have already been tabled in parliament when this column appears. The new Government has received plaudits from near and far for having presented so quickly legislation that should have been in the statute books at least two decades ago if [...]


The right to know but how much


If the schedule has been kept, the long awaited Right to Information (RTI) Bill should have already been tabled in parliament when this column appears. The new Government has received plaudits from near and far for having presented so quickly legislation that should have been in the statute books at least two decades ago if only those who governed this country previously had had the political will and the courage to do so.
Over the years the public’s right of access to information has come to be recognised and accepted as a fundamental right without which freedom of speech and expression would be far less meaningful even when that is constitutionally guaranteed.

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So while the firm step the Government has taken to provide this statutory right to the people in the first days of its assuming office is a move in the right direction to affirming its stated commitment to transparency and accountability, it would be prudent to withhold the enthusiasm until we know more.

If I am not mistaken, it was the new secretary to the Media Ministry who said that a committee would be looking at earlier drafts of intended freedom of information legislation and the current draft bill. If what has now presumably been presented to parliament is the product of their collective wisdom, or at least the one that received their approval, it would have been helpful if the ministry had named the persons constituting the committee with their affiliations.

Though I have trawled, as it is called, various websites including several local newspapers, I could not find the information I was seeking. If the ministry that seems to be tasked with piloting through this legislation on the right to information, seems reluctant to provide such basic information so that the public will have an idea of the persons responsible for scanning the draft and probably giving their okay, it tends to throw some doubt on the government’s collective commitment to transparency.

If the Media Ministry which should be the forefront of providing information was forgetful or neglectful of providing such information then how much can one expect from other government departments and public institutions?

I remember reading somewhere remarks by the secretary to the Media Ministry saying there would be representatives of the Attorney General’s Department and the Justice Ministry on this committee to look at the draft bill. Fine. But they would have been looking at the law and the legal implications. I am more concerned, and surely other members of the public would also be, with the others who sat on this committee and who they are affiliated to or with.

I sought this information for two reasons. Firstly to see how qualified and knowledgeable they are on the subject and how representative they are of our diverse population. Secondly, whether the consultation, if that is what it was, was wide enough to encompass enough of civil society. After all if such legislation is intended to arm the people with an intrinsic right then there must surely be wide consultation with those who would be the ultimate beneficiaries of such laws.

I ask because there appear to be contradictions and lacuna in the draft and one needs clarifications from the relevant ministry regarding these.
Admittedly I have not been able to look in depth at the draft bill because I received a copy of it only a couple of days ago. I am not commenting on the legal aspects of the law as there will be far more competent persons to do so. My concern is with some of the contents of the Bill as currently presented.

There seems to be a contradiction between Clause 12 (1) and Clause 12 (2) in relation to appointments to the Right to Information Commission. Clause 12 (1) (b) states “the following persons to be appointed by the Minister” (my italics and presumably it means the Minister in charge of Media and Information) and lists the categories of those who will constitute the Commission.

But Clause 12(2) states: “Members of the Commission shall be appointed by the President on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council. The President shall nominate one of its members to be chairman.”

It is the President and the Constitutional Council, which one expects will be revived with the 19th Amendment that should rightly be involved in making the appointments and not the minister. Not many will have faith in a commission packed with ministerial favourites, would they?
Besides this inconsistency there is another unhealthy feature in that clause. The Secretary to the Minister handling media is to be a permanent feature on the Commission as deduced by Clause 12 (1) (a). Moreover the same ministry will nominate another commissioner. The ministry will not only have its secretary on the commission but also another nominated by it. So there will be two from the ministry in a commission consisting of five or six persons depending on how many are intended to be on it as there is some error in the numbering.

Here then is a commission that has too much official representation particularly if it is the minister and not the president who is going to make the appointments. Furthermore this legislation is not merely to benefit the media but the populace at large.

Those who have studied the operation of the Canadian and Australian laws on this subject would find that most of the calls on the authorities came not from the media but from the public at large. Inquiries by the media were 20 per cent or even less.

It is highly unnecessary for the ministry secretary to be on the commission since the secretary himself is a public official whose work and accountability will come under scrutiny. The commission should consist of persons who are not public officials or holding public office for otherwise the Commission will somehow be tainted with a smear of officialdom.

Clause 31 also causes concern. It says that the granting of access to information does not constitute an authorisation or approval by a public authority or the commission of the publication of such information by the person to whom that access was granted.

Let’s consider the case of a journalist who has sought information and that information has been made available to him/her. Why should the fact that information has been officially conveyed to that person not be considered official enough to be published? What is that public authority fighting shy of? Surely it must be clear enough to the drafters of this bill that if the media seeks information as it will be its statutory right and is given access to it, then they will be using that information immediately or later. There is no need for the media or the public to seek information purely for their edification. It is for use one way or another. So if there is no granting of authorisation what does it mean as far as receivers of information are concerned? If the circumstances require the media to declare where the information came from or quote the source would it amount to some infringement? Perhaps it is best that the need for this clause be explained for public benefit.

Moreover the time gap between the initial making of a request for information and it being made available seems too long. Those who have regularly attended parliament know only too well how answers to oral and written questions often take months before an answer is forthcoming, if it is answered at all. Some ministers do not even turn up in the House to answer questions addressed to them.

If there are time lags of six weeks or so, that culture of procrastination that afflicts parliament could become institutionalised in a bureaucracy already accustomed to lethargy, delay and prevarication in the performance of its public duties.

One hopes that the ensuing debate on this bill will meet some of the concerns at least and make clear what is intended. There are also lacuna that need to be addressed and the bill fine-tuned to serve its purpose which is essentially to empower the people in the hope of instilling transparency and accountability in an over-politicised administration and corruption and bribery will be effectively dealt with.

But as we know there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. So it is better to wait and see whether that gap will be closed and how.

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