Right to Information
Harun ur Rashid
people have the right to information as part of the rights
to live in a democratic society. To exercise this right
citizens must be able to gather information at home and
consequence to the right of information, citizens have
four broad rights, such as they must find it possible
to publish or relate otherwise the information thus acquired
without prior restraint or censorship by government, they
must be free to declare or print without fear of punishment,
they must possess the means of using or acquiring implements
of publication, and they should have freedom to distribute
and disseminate without obstruction by government or by
their fellow citizens.
to speak and write about public issues is as important
to the life of democratic government as is heart to the
human body. In fact, this privilege is the heart of accountability
of government. If that heart is weakened, the result is
death, so said American Justice Black in 1940 in the case
of Milk Wagon Drivers Union vs Meadowmoor Dairies.
American Judge Felix Frankfurter in 1941 in the case of
<>Bridges vs California<>, ruled that "because
freedom of public expression alone assures the unfolding
of truth, it is indispensable to the democratic process."
What the Judge implied that unfolding truth emanates from
the right to information.
origin and evolution of the idea that the public has the
right to information have less to do with constitutional
history than with the taxpayer's right to information
how government spends their money in running the country.
right to information is a clear sign of the desire for
knowledge. The demand for openness is a clear sign of
democratic pressure. Through history the demand has had
to be conceded partially and bit by bit. Successive Kings
were forced by this means to concede the right to information,
first to the feudal lords, and then to the gentry, the
merchants and later to public in order to stave off the
revolts against their power.
the struggle to secure the admission of the press to the
House of Commons and bring about the publication of Hansard
reflected the demand of the voters the right to information
what their MPs were doing in their name in the Parliament.
The members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors,
as citizens, partake and share in this right to information
in their own names and as editors, reporters and writers
they act, besides, as agents of other citizens whose right
to information they invoke.
development of parliamentary democracy, universal education
and the growth of the mass media have all increased the
range of public understanding through right to information
about government, industry and have in turn reinforced
the public has the right to information, it is acknowledged
that there are certain matters which are subject to secrecy.
The argument of secrecy is basic and runs like this. Every
country is vulnerable to external attack and internal
subversion and its defence requires it to prepare plans
against these possibilities. Thus preparations must be
kept behind the tightest veil of secrecy. The logic of
this argument is reasonable and few will challenge it.
having said that, the limits of secrecy have to be carefully
defined to avoid a situation in which any and every action
of government is justified by reference to security. Every
dictator in history has always found that an appeal to
security is a simplest way to win public acquiescence
for his tyranny or dictatorship.
is common knowledge that strong armed forces that are
built up to resist foreign aggression could then be used
to suppress discontent arising from legitimate demands
for human rights at home. Similarly, an internal security
apparatus is established in the guise of defending a free
society and then becomes an instrument for eroding freedom
in the society it is intended to defend. There is always
the risk that internal security measures could be abused
to deal with political opponents and critics of government.
these distortions of security can themselves be concealed
behind the very veil of secrecy which the needs of security
are supposed to justify. The balance between freedom including
the right to information and security poses difficulty
the US, former Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale
was a member of a Committee to inquire into the conduct
of the security services during the Nixon administration
and his report is illuminating as to how secrecy has been
abused. He wrote in the report:
There was massive invasion of privacy. For years FBI and
CIA illegally tapped phones and engaged in other forms
of electronic surveillance. The FBI and CIA both opened
the private of American citizens. The mail of people such
as Kennedy was opened. The law did not matter." The
US has now made a serious effort to open up discussion
of the proper limits of secrecy in a democratic society.
of Information legislation is a key to implement the right
to information. Sensitive to growing political pressures
for governmental openness, almost all Western democratic
countries have enacted Freedom of Information laws. India
did it in 2003.
is a democratic country and Article 11 of the Bangladesh
Constitution makes it clear. Consistent with the democratic
principles, it is suggested that Bangladesh Parliament
may enact the Freedom of Information legislation to provide
the public the right to information in any matter in governmental
sooner the law is enacted, the better will be the country's
image for its transparency and accountability. Secrecy
is the great enemy of democracy and the right to information
is to safeguard basic liberties in a democratic country.
author is Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.