Ensuring Right to Information
Workshop on media and information environment in Bangladesh
The extent to which public officials can be held accountable by citizens and transparency with which they carry out their functions, greatly impacts the quality of governance in a country, and hence its ability to fight poverty effectively. In this reality legal experts, media leaders, academics and activists stressed the need for the promulgation of a 'Right to Information Bill' to improve access to state information on the workshop titled “ Media and Information Environment in Bangladesh “, but warned it would be ineffective unless there is political and administrative commitment and will to enforce the law.
World Bank Country Director Xian Zhu inaugurated the workshop at Hotel Sonargaon in the city. The Daily Star, Channel i and Mass-Line Media Centre, CIDA are the partners of the workshop. The overarching objective of the workshop was:
* Highlight the role of right to information laws and public disclosure and transparency for accountable and effective governance in Bangladesh
* Recognize the role of right to information management for effective dissemination of information
* Develop an action plan for different stakeholders to contribute towards free and open flow of information in Bangladesh.
Speaking on the first day of a two-day World Bank Institute-sponsored workshop on 'Media and the information environment in Bangladesh,' they lamented that although there is a thriving media in the country, journalists gather information through informal channels and are sometimes forced to gather it illegally. They also said that the existing legal structure is 'extreme unfriendliness' towards the media, as the government ministers and officials are bound not to divulge information.
Legal experts Tanjib Alam and Asif Nazrul of law department, Dhaka University, claimed that the 'restrictive laws' perpetuating the lack of access to information are usually accentuated while the more enabling 'supportive laws' in the system are overlooked. Speaking in two separate sessions on the legal framework of right to information law, Tanjib cited more than 10 existing provisions, which ensure that the people would gain access to certain types of information. He also mentioned two other rules that restrict information to different levels of the government.
He said freedom of the press is enshrined in Article 39 of the constitution. Section A of the Article 39 ensures freedom of speech and expression while Section B ensures freedom of the press. Currently, both these provisions are suspended under the state of emergency, he added.
But, he said, hardly any of the provisions are applied because of very weak enforcement of the laws and most public servants incorrectly cite the Official Secrets Act, 1923 to withhold information, as the Act only legally applies to information regarding the national security.
“No amount of laws can help change the culture (of withholding information) unless enforcement of the law is ensured,” he added. Laura Neuman of the US-based Carter Centre said restrictive laws such as the Official Secrets Act are capable of having a chilling effect on public servants as it puts them at risk of criminal punishment. These laws need to be removed so that state officials are not provided the tools to continue a culture where the media and the public are deprived of information, she added. Tanjib added that this culture and other restrictive laws prevent the media from accessing crucial public information, thereby preventing participatory democracy. He argued that a Right to Information Bill, which has already been drafted in consultation with the stakeholders, must be put into force to ensure deliberative democracy. He also said that there should be an independent commission to set objective criteria to determine which information are to be kept secret.
Neuman said the objectives of creating an environment for access to information include improving accountability of the government and increasing transparency and public participation in national and local decision-making process. Nurul Kabir, editor of The New Age, said that journalists in Bangladesh obtain information through informal and social channels, but have no legal basis to do so. “We want to do it legally,” he said, adding that this is required so that people of all strata can participate in decision-making to strengthen democracy.
During a lunch presentation, Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, said informed opinion on public policy is an integral part of development. He said economic growth cannot be achieved without good governance, and good governance cannot be practised without accountability which can be ensured by a vigorous and independent media.
On the concluding day of the workshop the researchers and NGO leaders said the push to pass the proposed draft of the RTI Bill has not turned into a 'movement' as yet, but it is slowly gathering pace. Naomi Hossain of the Centre for Governance Studies, Brac University, said young civil servants should be the target of awareness campaign as they are willing to change themselves and change the 'culture of secrecy' in the bureaucracy.
Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, said the people need to know why they should have access to information. She suggested arranging public hearings at the grassroots level on various issues such as transparency in ration card distribution and cost of road constructions. Outlining the Mexican laws relating to the access to information, Juan Pablo Guerrero Amparan, commissioner of the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information (IFAI) in Mexico, said the laws require the government to publish certain materials online, especially the results of government audits and civic participation mechanism.
The participants, including media leaders, development practitioners and academics, also come out with a set of recommendations and offered strategies to move the RTI Bill forward, saying mass awareness programmes should be launched on the media and through various other means such as play, song and poster. Stressing the need to adopt the RTI Bill at the earliest. They also suggested holding a series of dialogues with politicians, government agencies, the media, donors and training institutes to formulate a more effective and comprehensive strategy to push the RTI Bill forward. Thus the workshop seeks to bridge these key capacity gaps in the media and communications environment in a developing country like Bangladesh, working with local organisations to create the enabling regulatory environment for open information access.
From Law Desk..