Let There Be Light
Observing Right to Information Day 2007
Former chief adviser to the caretaker government Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman said an elected government with a greater participation of the people should formulate the right to information act. While, Law Commission Member Dr Enamul Hoque, along with other academics and rights activists, rather preferred that the law is enacted as soon as possible creating a legal basis for the people to seek information. The observations came from a discussion on 'citizen charter and right to information' organised by Mass-line Media Centre (MMC) in the LGED auditorium in the capital, in association with Manusher Jonno, Article 19, and the World Bank as part of a three-day programme marking the Right to Information Day 2007.
Speaking as the chief guest, Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman said the right to information act, if enacted by the present caretaker government, might even be cancelled later. "The act should be framed ensuring a balance between national security and good governance and on the other hand the peoples right to information," he said. Acceptability of the act and the government's accountability in enforcing it will be more visible if it is enacted by an elected government, Justice Habibur Rahman said noting that the government should enforce the act sincerely and check its misuse.
The three days celebrations of the Right to Information day 2007 were divided in different sessions which includes the topics titled, 'Citizen Charter and Right to Information', 'Climate risk and Right to Information', Status of RTI in Bangladesh and Its International Standard, Women's access to information: Role of women journalists, People's ownership on public information: Bridging strategy and Necessity of national broadcasting Commission in Bangladesh.
In the first session Law Commission Member Dr Enamul Hoque said that the draft of the right to information act was prepared in 2002, the promulgation of which has yet to come. "However, now there is a chance for its implementation. The information adviser is a former journalist and the act could be promulgated if he could be convinced properly," he added. Dr Enamul Hoque observed that the official secrets act needs not be scrapped for the sake of national security, but may be amended.
Speaking as the guest of honour, eminent economist Prof Wahiduddin Mahmud said the government should promulgate not only the right to information act, but also laws on conflict of interest.
"Taking advantage of the absence or weaknesses of such laws, the children of influential people are getting engaged in rampant corruption," he said adding that most of the corruption in the country take place in the implementation process of development projects, public purchases, and in the bidding process. "Public procurement decisions must be recorded properly and the responsibilities in implementing the decisions must be specified," said Dr Wahiduddin Mahmud, also a former adviser to a caretaker government. Expecting that the interim government will promulgate the right to information act through an ordinance, journalism Professor Dr Golam Rahman said the government should set up offices to provide information sought by the people.
Democracy Watch Executive Director Taleya Rehman, Bangladesh Mohila Parishad General Secretary Ayesha Khanam, and MMC Executive Director Kamrul Hassan Monju also took part in the discussion chaired by Bangladesh Centre of Development Research President Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley.
A discussion on climate risk and right to information was also held where Unnayan Shamunnay Chairman Dr Atiur Rahman, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies Executive Director Dr Atiq Rahman, IUCN Country Representative Dr Inun Nishat, and Environment Secretary AHM Rezaul Kabir spoke, while disaster management expert M Kamal Uddin presented the keynote paper
At the roundtable organised on the second day of a three-day programme the legal experts preferred enacting a "right to information (RTI) act" as soon as possible to waiting for an elected government to do it. They were speaking at a discussion titled "Status of RTI in Bangladesh and its International Standard" in the first session of the roundtable. Dr Shahdeen Malik presented the keynote paper at the session chaired by Attorney General Fida M Kamal and moderated by Mass-line Media Executive Director Kamrul Hassan Monju.
Renowned legal experts of the country demanded disclosure of information and evidence of all corruption cases in recognition of people's right to information. "Information and evidence of each corruption case and the bank accounts of the suspects have to be made public," said jurist Dr Kamal Hossain on the roundtable discussion. After people get such information, they will understand that there were incidents of corruption and that their wealth has been plundered, he added. Speaking as the chief guest, Kamal Hossain said right to information is recognised as a birthright in the UN Human Rights Charter and Article 7 of Bangladesh's constitution. "To shape and nurture democracy, people need to know how the country is being run, what decisions the government is taking and why," he said, adding that democracy means accountability to people who hold all powers of the state.
Attorney General Fida M Kamal, former law minister Abdul Matin Khasru, Dr Shahdeen Malik, barrister Tanjib-ul Alam and Dr Golam Rahman of Daffodil University echoed the concern of Dr. Kamal. "It is not correct that the law cannot be formulated now. The caretaker government can pass an ordinance now and elected representatives will look into it later to find if there is any mistake," Fida said.
Shahdeen Malik pointed out that setting up of an elaborate system to provide information on demand will take a long time. "We can initially introduce the system in one ministry and the experience may help dissemination of information from all other ministries," he said. On the draft RTI law prepared by a core expert group on invitation of Manusher Jonno, Tanjib-ul Alam said the draft, now under scrutiny at the law ministry, proposes getting access to information of private organisations--NGOs, private educational institutes and pharmaceutical companies, whichever has anything to do with people's lives. Abdul Matin Khasru and Editor of the New Age Nurul Kabir demanded withdrawal of the state of emergency for discussion on the RTI.
In the second session, Shaila Shahid of The Daily Star presented the keynote paper styled "Women's Access to Information: Role of Woman Journalists". Human rights activist Dr Hameeda Hossain presided over the session attended by Jose Adgarda L Compas, lead governance adviser of World Bank, and Zafrin Jabin Chowdhury, senior communication officer of Unicef, Bangladesh. Executive director of Centre for Development Communication Muhammad Jahangir moderated the session.
The discussion titled 'People's ownership on public information: Bridging strategy' was held on the last day of the three-day programme. Academics and civil society members at a discussion yesterday called for creating mass awareness and involving marginal people in formulating the right to information act. They also stressed the need for setting up government information offices at the grassroots levels to change the 'culture of secrecy' and bridge the gaps between the government and people, and between the private sectors and people.
The draft of right to information act should be widely circulated seeking public opinion and be enacted as soon as possible to strengthen democracy, good governance and accountability at every sphere of life," said Mahbubul Alam, former adviser to the caretaker government. Speaking as guest of honour, Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Iftekharuzzaman said establishing public ownership on the right to information act (draft) is very important, and as an opportunity has been created now, the act could be promulgated immediately and then may be amended if necessary. "If private sectors like corporate bodies and NGOs are not transparent, then they do not have the right to ask the government to give information', he added.
Presenting the keynote paper, Associate Professor Shameem Reza of Dhaka University said only some civil society members and NGOs were involved in the movement for right to information, but participation of marginal people was not ensured. The common people are little aware of the right to information, he said, adding that involving people in the movement is important for effective enforcement of the act. To bridge the gap between the government and people, Shameem suggested utilising information officer at the district level and using their mobile film units in creating awareness about the right to information and its impact on people.
"Our authoritarian mentality will have to be changed for bringing a change in information regime," said Executive Chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, who presided over the session. World Bank Senior Public Sector Specialist Saku Akmeemana said people at the top like bureaucrats and politicians should also be involved in the movement of right to information, besides involving marginal people. Former chairman of Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Marghub Murshed also spoke at the discussion participated by journalists from across the country, rights activists and civil society members.
Compiled by Law Desk.