17 August 2018

Right to know

Hiding information is violation of citizen’s right to information and a major stumbling block to strengthening democracy
Let me begin with two recent incidents where information seekers were threatened and attacked by public officials and local representatives. On July 5, Ram Bikash Chaudhary, a Rupandehi-based journalist, received a death threat by a local representative for seeking information using Right to Information (RTI) law. A few days later, Arun Mandal, a local leader was attacked by a rural municipality chairperson on July 9 in Saptari district for requesting information. 
These are the representative cases which show Nepal’s public agencies are still reluctant to provide information to the public though Right to Information law is in place. Many bureaucrats and politicians think that public information is their business and public has nothing to do with it. Our leaders and bureaucrats hide critical information from the public. As a result, RTI laws have failed to yield desired outcome. 
Recent media reports show that Council of Ministers is not making its decisions public, thereby limiting citizens’ right to information. It has been learnt that decisions relating to recommendation for ambassadorial posts and distribution of money to those loyal to the ruling party were kept secret for weeks. This is one example of how our government has yet to embrace the essence of proactive disclosure as envisioned by the constitution and Right to Information law. RTI law clearly states that the government is obliged to proactive disclosure of information of public importance. Non-disclosure of cabinet decision can be taken as a breach of constitutional and legal norms. It also shows how information hiding culture has become rooted in our government system. 
Discouraging factors 
While the government tends to hide the public information, the general people do not seek information as proactively. Right to Information laws are crucial to making the government accountable but in Nepal people still hesitate to use RTI law to seek information of public importance. 
Information-seeking culture has not been established yet. Many think seeking information is not their duty. Why should I become enemy of powerful leaders by seeking information? Goes the thinking. But there are several reasons behind low enforcement of RTI laws. First, the government departments’ response to RTI seekers is woefully slow. Second, individual members of the society do not feel safe to seek information. Many individuals are threatened by public officers for seeking information. 
Besides, many individuals and communities are still not aware of the fact that they have the right to information. There is a huge gap between what the law states must be made public and what government bodies actually disclose.
Inadequate publicity of law, lack of awareness on using RTI laws and the associated costs are other hurdles. As seeking information using RTI is a time-taking process, people soon lose patience. 
Know thy rights 
Right to information is a fundamental right. Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights has listed seeking, receiving and imparting information and ideas as a fundamental human right. 
Nepal’s laws have also recognized access to information as fundamental right. The Right to Information (RTI) has been ensured by the constitution and laws have been formulated accordingly. Nepal’s effort to introduce progressive Right to Information (RTI) legislation has been recognized by various rights groups and civil society organizations as a crucial step toward ensuring transparency.
Nepal’s laws have ensured the provision of proactive disclosure, which makes it mandatory for all public agencies to disclose information of public information without any hesitation. 
There is huge expectation of people regarding good governance, transparency and accountability in federal system. People also expect transparency and accountability from public officials. But many public officials tend to feel that they are ‘active service provider’ and general people are ‘passive recipients of services on their mercy’. This mindset must be challenged and changed. 
The government must realize that hiding information from public is violation of citizen’s right to information and a major stumbling block to strengthening and institutionalizing democracy.  The government officials must discourage non-transparent and unaccountable culture. After all, the government is chosen by the people and its officials are paid from tax payer money. Thus the government should adopt open government culture to build informed citizenry, an essential pillar of democracy.
Right to Information laws have not received much attention in public debate. Thus it is important to raise public awareness on RTI issues. Autonomous bodies such as National Information Commission should come forward to safeguard rights of RTI activists and the public who wish to seek information. It should be ensured that no citizen will be attacked or threatened simply for seeking information by using RTI laws. Instead, the state should encourage citizens to seek information by offering incentives. It is time to make Nepal an open, transparent and accountable country where every citizen is well informed and democracy is institutionalized.
(A version of this article appears in print on August 5, 2018 of My Republica by Pramod Bhattarai)


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