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     Volume 4 Issue 76 | December 23, 2005 |

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Access to Information

Shamim Ahsan and Imran H. Khan

James Medison, one of the architects of the of the United States constitution, wrote about one and a half century years ago, "a popular government, without popular information or means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both". Access to information is all about openness, transparency, and accountability and in a democracy, where the government is by the people, of the people and for the people, all citizens must have access to information related to governance. But this is what is supposed to happen in an ideal situation and Bangladesh is not exactly near to that.

Though democracy was supposedly established in 1991, democratic norms and practices are not reflected in every sphere of governance. We have not made much progress in terms of institutionalising democracy except for initiating a process of handing over power through elections every five years. One of the ways to give democracy a deep root is to ensure that people have right to know how the government runs and how different government bodies function.

While many of the democratic countries have guaranteed this right to their citizens, the constitution of Bangladesh does not give this right to or access to information. However the need for access to information has been recognised by the Law Commission of Bangladesh that prepared a working paper in 2002, which now lies with the information ministry. "For the sake of transparency in the democratic process and good governance in any county, public access to information appears essential," said the working paper on a proposed Right to Information Act 2002.

A two-day conference on 'Right to Information: National and Regional Perspective' organised by Manusher Jonno, an organisation working for the promotion of human rights and good governance, was held from December 13 to 15 at Bangladesh Institute of Administration and Management that saw a whole range of issues related to right to information discussed in seven parallel workshops.

The idea of the elaborated programme was to create awareness among the different professional groups, civil society and the people in general about the importance of creating a law that would ensure people's right to know. Though the government does not seem to have any plan to enact a law to that aim any time soon, Manusher Jonno has been campaigning to mobilise awareness among people and create pressure on the government so that a good and effective law is made.

Speakers in the seminar on "Implementation and Monitoring of Right to Information Act" attached great importance to involve the people, especially the civil society, before developing the law commission's working paper to a full-fledged law. Unless people's experience and aspiration can be accommodated in the law there will be no meaning to scripting a law in the first place.

Suhashini from India presented the keynote paper in the workshop titled "Implementation and Monitoring of Rights to Information Act", moderated by Executive Director of BELA, Syeda Rezwana Hasan. Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, Dr Iftekharuzzaman, Advocate Shahdheen Malik and Programme Manager of MJ, Kartick Chandra Mandal discussed as the panellists.

One of the participants proposed if the media's role can be ensured through the law, arguing that the television channels including BTV can reach millions of people and made them aware of their right. The government is very unlikely to enact such a law unless it is made to do it and there is no option but to create public awareness to make that happen.

Suhashini in her keynote paper presented the situation in India where a law in this connection was enacted in May this year and offered some suggestion that can be incorporated in the law that would be enacted in Bangladesh. Since India and Bangladesh share almost similar socio-economic and political situation Bangladesh can take cues from the Indian law, she suggested.

Pointing to the Bangladesh's dubious distinction of winning the laureate of the most corrupt country in the world, the speakers also pointed out that access to information can work as a strong deterrent to corruption. The issue of introducing E-governance was also raised in this context.

"We have here some laws and rules like official secrets act, government service act, the rules of business etc to block people's right and access to information, which ultimately keep the countrymen unaware of their rights," said Shaheen Anam, team leader of Manusher Jonno. Terming right to information as a fundamental right not only as a development tool, Shaheen Anam said, "How people will live now depends on information they get. And we have to face a great system loss for want of information."

Pointing to the fact that the law commission has prepared a draft in this regard without any discussion, she said, "We don't know exactly the implication of right to information. We don't know where we'll complain if we don't get certain government service and who will give us solution."

Dr Kamal Uddin Siddiqui, principal secretary to the government, promised to do his best towards the enactment of Right to Information Act, saying the right will be invaluable for good governance, poverty alleviation and will be beneficial for all. Pointing out that the Official Secrets Act is outdated as it was formulated during colonial rule, he stressed the need for amending the act.

The concluding ceremony of the conference included a host of high officials from local and foreign NGOs. Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud, Dept of Economics, Dhaka University was the chairperson of the ceremony while Maja Dhun Daruwala, Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, Deputy Director, Law and Society Trust were present as special guests. Also gracing the event as chief guest was none other than Dr Kamal Uddin Siddiqui. Shaheen Anam from Manusher Jonno was also present on stage to greet the guests and to speak on the occasion.

The concluding ceremony mainly focused on the various recommendations made during the conference. The quote of the day was probably "Right to information is the oxygen of democracy," coming from Maja Dhun Daruwala, one of the special guests. Unless the common people get access to information, democracy cannot function. Another problem existing at the root of our system is the "lack of accountability." There are a lot of things happening around us but no one is taking the blame. Accountability and transparency of the government will help to shape up the democracy. Once people start to realise that their actions will come into question they will think twice before taking the route of corruption.

Another issue was the people's political movement from the grassroots to the national level. This is necessary as a combination of people's movement, dialogues with policy makers and pressure on the government are vital to ensure the enactment of laws. It cannot only be a top down policy where only the people in power, the movers and shakers, are making the decisions for the nation. The people and the civil society must be able to participate in the drafting of the law, their implementation and monitoring. There has to be a collaborative effort from all fronts.

Also there is another point to be mulled over. What use is there in making a law if there is not proper mechanism to implement the law? Hence, the people who are enforcing these laws should be well aware of them and their consequences. Here again the question of accountability can be brought up. On the topic of law, another strong recommendation was that it should include punishment for the violators. Unless the criminals face the penalty, there is nothing stopping them from committing the crimes.

The right to information law should be above the Official Secrets Act. People are hungry and are starving and that's for information. In Sri-Lanka the information act is necessary and the media drives it. But here in Bangladesh bureaucracy drives it. Experts are of the opinion that this is wrong. There is certain information which is considered secret as it is vital for the defence of a country. Other than that, all other information should be made transparent to the people. A report should also be submitted to the parliament every year about the progress of the implementation of various laws. Incentives could be given to the concerned ministry that has provided better services. The incentive could be a boost in the ministry's fund. NGOs could come forward and provide alternative reports for the government regarding the implementation of laws.

Most experts are of the opinion that the movements of the NGOs should be autonomous. They should be able to work free of government pressure or any other pressure. They should be free from outside interference while trying to link up small local-level demands to the larger issues. That way, all issues will be addressed and everyone will be benefited.

There were also numerous recommendations taken out from the various workshops. The workshop themes included "Women and Right to Information", "Access to Information Violation of Rights and Justice", "Access to Information and poverty alleviation", "Empowering Local Government in Ensuring Access to Information", "Implementation and monitoring of Right to Information Act", "International Trade and Development: Right to Information" and a roundtable on "Freedom of Information and Role of Media".

At the seminar it was Dr Kamal Uddin Siddiqui who got to say the final words. He deemed the conference to be a huge success and looked forward to the proposals and recommendations coming from it. "We can learn from our neighbours India as they have shown us the way," said Siddiqui. Their political parties may have problems but "no one questions their Election Commission or their justice system…" He repeated a famous quote, "Sunshine is the most powerful of disinfectants." People should have the right to know. That is of the foremost importance.

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