Star Law Analysis
Right to information strengthens democracy
A consultation meeting on “Draft law on right to information,” prepared by a law core group and facilitated by Manusher Jonno Foundation recently, emphasised the need for launching a countrywide movement of the people for its enactment. The demand for its enactment is sure to become stronger as professionals at different levels are gradually becoming united. And if the right to information is ensured it would go a long way to help strengthen democracy and also curb corruption in society.
The enactment of Right to Information Law is expected to greatly benefit the newsmen who frequently need confirmation of information from different sources. They face difficulties in the discharge of professional responsibilities in the absence of such a law.
In today's world the importance of free flow of information needs no exaggeration. Freedom of speech is often described as a precondition to democracy. And most of the countries of the world have either established democracy or are struggling for it.
The countries which were under the British rule have freed themselves from the colonial masters long ago, but in some cases they are still carrying the legacy of their colonial masters in running the affairs of the government. It is high time that the subject of right to information is brought under a legal regime as has already been done in many countries. If the political parties are serious about the enactment of Right to Information Act, they have to amend the Official Secrets Act which is a hurdle in gathering information.
Public statements were made by responsible ruling party leaders, including Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Barrister Moudud Ahmed that they would amend the Official Secrets Act as it was not in conformity with democratic practices. In reality nothing concrete has been done so far though the term of the alliance government ends within a couple of months.
South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), an organisation of journalists of SAARC member countries, has also been creating pressure on the decision makers for enactment of Right to Information Act and repeal of the Official Secrets Act. If the Official Secrets Act is amended it would also pay dividend to the ruling alliance. Meanwhile, the enactment of the Right to Information Law is at various stages of progress in SAARC member countries like Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.
The politicians of Bangladesh, as it appears, are either reluctant or not serious about amendment of the Official Secrets Act, which has become irrelevant and also redundant in today's context. Nothing has so far been heard as regards giving punishment to anybody in our country for violation of the Act. The politicians often have to swallow criticisms for not amending the black law formulated by the British colonial rulers. The British rulers adopted the Official Secrets Act for consolidating their rule and exploiting the people denying their fundamental human rights.
Even places like Railway, Water or Power installations were included under the purview of the Official Secrets Act through a gazette notification on temporary basis. Under the Official Secrets Act, any body drawing any sketch or taking any photograph of any restricted government installation, can be given various degrees of punishment, including death sentence.
Bangladesh has been under parliamentary system of democracy for nearly 15 years and it remains a big surprise why this unnecessary and anti-people law, has not been changed or repealed so far.
As per the media list the number of dailies coming out from Dhaka is 117 that of and those from outside Dhaka is 193. The number of weeklies coming out from Dhaka is 109. Some of those newspapers do not practice responsible or objective professionalism. When several hundred dailies and weeklies are coming out with reports not permissible under the Official Secrets Act, it means the law has not only lost its relevance but it has outlived its utility.
Even as back as in the 17th century famous English poet John Milton had strongly argued in his famous book “ Areopagitica” in favour of freedom of opinion. Areopagitica was addressed to the two Houses of Parliament of Britain in the form of an oration addressed to the members urging them to repeal or withdraw the licencing order which they had passed in 1643 with regard to all kinds of publication. Milton was opposed to any kind of censorship upon books as he was a staunch believer in freedom of opinion of all kinds, including the freedom of authors to write whatever they pleased and the freedom of publishers to publish whatever they wanted.
Taking advantage of the Official Secrets Act, officials in most cases do not cooperate with the people not to speak of the Press whenever any information is sought on any matter of public interests. They argue that they cannot comply with the request as they could be liable to punishment under the Act.
Information relating to even inter-ministerial meetings are not disclosed to the people who have a right to know what decisions are being taken about their fate. Even in some cases top officials of one ministry cannot officially seek information of another ministry out of fear of the law. During my more than three decades of journalistic career, I could have been probably harassed several times taking advantage of the law for publication of exclusive reports, some of which have, however, earned readers' appreciation.
One newspaper was punished in Singapore, which was also a British colony, applying the Official Secrets Act a couple of years ago. On the other hand, one woman in Thailand obtained admission of her child who was shown disqualified in the admission test of a reputed school by throwing challenge to its authority taking advantage of the Freedom of Information Law.
The Washington Post and The New York Times had published reports relating to Vietnam War in the 60's despite attempts of the Pentagon to impose ban on their publications as there has been Freedom of Information Law in the US.
Nurul Huda is a BSS Special Correspondent.