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     Volume 7 Issue 41 | October 17, 2008 |

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The Long Wait for Accountability

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB speaking at the seminar. On his right are Mahbubul Alam former information adviser and Shaheen Anam, convener of RTI Forum and executive director of MJ Foundation among others.

It may seem like the biggest irony that despite being bestowed with democratic governments since 1991, it was when the country was in a state of emergency that one of the most crucial tools for a sound democratic process, the Right to Information Ordinance was approved by the existing government. Of course it is an indication of how flawed our previous democratic governments have been and how badly we need to get on the right track.

The draft of the Ordinance was made as early as 2002 by the Law Commission but was kept in the freezer ever since as none of the successive governments wanted to ratify it. Manusher Jonno Foundation became a pioneer to raise awareness amongst civil society about the need for this Act and how it could be drafted so that it would actually work. The earlier draft had been full of loopholes and contradictions which had to be pointed out and corrected. The Foundation has arranged countless discussions and meetings in Dhaka and the rest of the country, with lawyers, representatives from major political parties and the present government, former advisors, journalists and the general public, to talk about the Act and the loopholes in the draft. As part of its crusade to make the RTI ordinance an effective tool for transparency and good governance, Manusher Jonno Foundation formed the Right to Information Forum, which includes a wide range of organisations (including Transparency International Bangladesh) and individuals from various fields.

Earlier this month, the Forum held a seminar at Brac Centre Inn titled: 'Right to Information: Why at this moment?' Shaheen Anam, convenor of the RTI Forum and execuive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation provided the simple answer to this question: "...so that ordinary people benefit from it". She expressed her hope that the next government will endorse the legislation in parliament, which is the key element in the RTI story. The RTI act can only work in a democratic government and can only function if a parliament endorses it as a law.

Manusher Jonno's booklet on the ordinary citizen's right to know.

The approval of the present caretaker government, however, is something to be celebrated, as it is the first time that a government of Bangladesh has accepted the need for an ordinance that will compel public officials to reveal information that affects public welfare, that tells the ordinary person where his or her tax money is going. Anam explained that after the ordinance is implemented, corruption will decline and the resulting culture of transparency and accountability will improve Bangladesh's image, no doubt an allusion to our 'most corrupt nation' status of our immediate past. She however added that there was still room for improvement in the draft.

The seminar's keynote paper presenter,Barrister Tanjib-ul Alam, gave an interesting take on the issue by showing that the right to information has always been part of our legal system in that there are provisions in most existing laws which support the right to information. At the same time many of the public institutions should be made more transparent by publishing annual reports. Article 141 of the Public Service Commission for instance, provides for the preparation and submission of an annual report with the President but there is nothing on what will happen after that. The Election Commission is not even required to publish an annual report or its budget, under the constitution.

Article 132 provides that the report of the Auditor General relating to public accounts of the Republic shall be submitted to the President, who shall cause them to be laid before Parliament although there is no provision for the publication of this information for the general public.

The judiciary has no provision for publication of an annual report about its performance or how information about it can be disseminated. Alam pointed out that even though we have a so-called independent judiciary, the right to information has not been even remotely addressed in it. He added that every year there is a backlog of around 8000 cases. Death sentences sometimes take 6 to 8 years to be carried out. Even within the judiciary, there is no free flow of information he opined. The need of the day, according to Alam, is for the judiciary to disclose how it is carrying out its administrative function as it is a service-oriented institution meant for the welfare of the public.

Local government institutions are bodies that affect people in their everyday lives and there are provisions that stipulate that they provide the public with information. The City Corporation Ordinance 2008, Pourashava Ordinance 2008 and Local Government Ordinance 1983 have incorporated in them such provisions. This includes the publishing of a Citizen's Charter, annual reports and specific references to the right to information. Section 68 of the Upazilla Parishad, for example, provides that, subject to existing laws, every citizen has the right to information in relation to the Parishad through prescribed procedure.

The Utility sector (gas, electricity, WASA, telephone etc) Alam pointed out in his paper, probably has the least provision for disclosure of information, which hardly comes as a surprise considering the unbelievable level of corruption in this sector.

Enclosed in the customary folder that participants get (and often forget about soon after) at seminars, was a booklet published by Manusher Jonno. Illustrated with colourful cartoons, the publication shows how ordinary people are constantly deprived of their rights because of official corruption and lack of information. The little booklet, which many will keep handy, explains in simple language how the right to information law can help them in everyday life. Moreover, it gives them the power to ask questions and not be silent victims of a corrupt system. Questions like why there are no doctors at the public health centres, why a bridge has not been completed, why a widow's children are not getting property from her dead husband and so on.

Ideally in a true democracy, a citizen should have the right to know everything about the government and its institutions it governs especially if it pertains to his or her daily life. The Right to Information law is the first step towards such an ideal.


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