´Freedom of Information is a fundamental Human Right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms’---- the first line of the UN General Assembly Resolution 59(1), 1946 suitably describes the importance of right to information (RTI). Given the importance of RTI, more than 100 countries have now incorporated RTI within their national legal regime and more than 55 countries have guaranteed it as a fundamental right under the Constitution.
For the first time ever to do so, Sweden made legal arrangements for ensuring RTI in 1766, but only 14 countries had the provision till 1990. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the political democratization process accelerated and RTI became popular even in the developing world.
Right to information is acknowledged as a vibrant tool for promoting good governance; particularly accountability and transparency, as well as an essential element for a functional democracy. Lack of information impedes citizens’ ability to assess the decisions of their leaders, and thus, RTI is considered like oxygen for democracy.
Right to Information was guaranteed as a fundamental right for the first time in Nepal in 1990, along with the re-establishment of democracy. However, it was not exercised effectively because of the lack of legislation until the Right to Information Act was passed. The interim parliament of Nepal passed a specific legislation on RTI in the form of the Right to Information Act, 2007 on July 18, which was a breakthrough in legal protection of RTI and its implementation. The Act was endorsed by the speaker of the parliament on July 21, and it came into force on August 20, 2007. The current interim Constitution, 2007, also made provisions for RTI as a fundamental right in Article 27.
Now we have completed five years of implementing the RTI Act. At this point, it is crucial to assess how the concerned stakeholders, including the Nepal government and National Information Commission (NIC) ---- an independent oversight body, played their role for the protection and promotion of RTI. This assessment will help us work more effectively for the better protection of right to information in the coming days. It will also encourage people to come ahead and exercise their right to be informed about the government’s activities and for ensuring our governance is transparent, accountable and responsible.
To facilitate the execution of the RTI Act 2007, the cabinet passed the RTI regulation in February 2009. The government also established the National Information Commission in May 2008. And pursuant to the Section 3 and 27 of the Act, information classification was made for the protection of sensitive and important information by the classification committee in 2009. The government then quashed the previous classification and made new classifications in January, 2012. The new classification was rejected outright by concerned stakeholders and was criticized as a tool to hide information, going against the spirit of the RTI Act. Because of huge opposition from civil society and from NIC, the government was forced to withdraw the classification. Supporting the citizens’ demand, the Supreme Court also issued a stay order, preventing the government from implementing the new classification.
However, despite the elaborate legal and institutional set-up, the implementation of RTI has been far from satisfactory. Many public agencies have not appointed information officers; while the appointed information officers in other agencies lack necessary training, capacity and resources. Capacity and orientation of the information officer --- negligible in Nepal ---- is critical for the effective implementation of the RTI Act. Pursuant to Sections 4 and 5 of the Act, public agencies have to update and disclose information on a routine basis, but this obligation has not been fulfilled.
Though the law defines political parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as ‘public agencies’ and requires them to proactively disclose information regarding their organization, none of the political parties have appointed public information officers to comply with the act. Similarly, most NGOs seem disinterested in implementing RTI. The real consumer of information --- the citizen --- does not seem adequately aware of his rights to seek information. The huge misconception of RTI being merely a media tool still exists.
Last year, the government decided to set up an RTI unit within the prime minister’s office to monitor and provide necessary support to public agencies for RTI implementation, but no progress seems to have been made so far.
The first National RTI Conference held that raising public awareness and capacity building programmes for information officers be organized at the civil society level. Similarly, motivation for filing an RTI application, legal support and counseling should be provided, and is being done in many cases. However, the lack of momentum from civil society organizations on RTI as well as poor awareness levels among people have been huge hindrances to the effective implementation of this Act. Massive campaigns and activities are truly necessary to bring RTI awareness to the grassroots level.
RTI has not been a priority for the government, NGOs and donor community in the last five years. The Act was adopted during a phase of political transition where the priority was peace building, constitution making, state restructuring, inclusion and others. Though RTI cuts across issues of governance, politics, human rights and development, there is still a false belief that it is a separate discipline.
However, on the positive side, some crucial stories have been broken and huge strides made in the last five years using RTI, despite its weak implementation. These include information about VAT defaulters, functioning of CA, making answer sheets available to students, and the expenditure of different probe commissions and so on.
Public access to government-held information allows individuals to better understand the role of the government and the decisions being made on their behalf. With an informed citizenry, governments can be held accountable for their policies, and citizens can more effectively choose their representatives. Equally important, right to information laws can be used to improve the lives of people as they can request for information related to health care, education, and other public services.
We should all strive towards better implementation of the RTI law in the coming years to make our government more accountable and transparent and improve the lives of the ordinary citizens.
The author is executive director, Citizens’ Campaign for Right to Information