With just two parliamentary sessions left before the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) government’s term comes to an end, certain quarters are raising concerns on the Right To Information (RTI) Bill that prime minister Lyonchen Jigmi Y Thinley had assured would be introduced by his government within its tenure in power.
But what is more ironical is the fact that the government has no clue as to what Gasa national council MP Sangay Khandu’s RTI bill looks like. Officials in governance declared that they were completely ignorant of what the draft Act entailed.
Since the government delayed drafting its version of the RTI Act, Sangay Khandu will introduce the RTI Bill in the 9th session of the parliament on May 2012 as a private member’s bill.
Department of information and media (DoIM) director, Kinley T Wangchuk was of the opinion that the government’s version of the RTI bill will be ready to be introduced in the upcoming parliament but he was unsure of how it would be adopted.
He also referred to the prime minister’s statement made to the media recently that RTI is not considered a priority adding that he is not aware of Sangay Khandu’s RTI bill. “I am only conscious of the government’s RTI draft, I haven’t even heard of it (Sangay Khandu’s bill)”; the government will have to look at both the bills and see which one is more appropriate.”
Meanwhile, Sangay Khandu said it was ‘ironic’ that authorities are not aware of the only RTI version that is out in public domain and the much talked about draft of the government that the ministry has held onto has only been talked about, not seen. “I think one can google up my version; I welcome any comments and feedback, even if intensive”.
According to him, it does not really matter who introduces the bill in parliament because the government still has a big role if not a pivotal one to play in seeing this important law gets enacted.
“What is most important is that it is enacted and at the end of it all the government would be responsible for it.”
NC chairperson, Thrizin Namgye Penjore said that Sangay Khandu’s RTI bill has been forwarded to the legislative committee for further review following which it will be tabled in the upcoming parliament subject to one third majority support of the national council members. However, he said “he doesn’t have any idea” about the RTI bill that the government is initiating and that MoIC should be the one to comment.
“If any bill is to be tabled by the national council, the draft bill has to reach the council three months before the parliamentary session,” he added.
He said, according to the constitution, “a house will table a bill, deliberate on it and the bill will be passed on to the other house that will also deliberate on it in the next session. After that it will be submitted to the house from where it originated”. He also said that only an urgent bill or the budget bill can be passed in the same session. “RTI is not an urgent bill,” Namgye Penjore said.
Talking to The Bhutanese, Opposition leader Tshering Tobgay said, he would advise the government to table the RTI bill in the coming session.
“We still have two parliamentary sessions, so if we work hard, we should be able to enact this important law”.
He also suggested that the government should cooperate with NC MP Sangay Khandu if it is unable for any reasons to table a RTI bill in the upcoming session. “They should cooperate with the Gasa MP to ensure that their views and concerns are included in the bill that he will introduce as a private bill,” he added.
Head of DoIM’s media relation division, Dawa Penjor, meanwhile defended the government saying that the ministry has been working on the RTI Bill “but needs to attend to other urgent needs”.“With the growth of media in the country, we need to first take care of pressing needs like revamping the information and media act and advertisement guidelines”.
Dawa Penjor stated that the ministry has received interest from the media but negligible response from the general public towards RTI and rigorous awareness needs to be created among Bhutanese citizens before having a legislation in place. He explained that RTI use starts at the grass root level and awareness is important because if there are no users of the RTI, it is a waste of public resources.
The ministry, he said, is looking at two levels by first inviting inputs from international institutions and then conducting a workshop for stakeholders to enhance awareness. The workshop will be conducted towards the end of April or early May 2012.
He added that both the government version and Sangay Khandu’s version of the RTI draft are mainly based on the High Court version of 2007 and complete revision is required as the situation now is different from then.
To this, Sangay Khandu replied that the High Court’s draft was only used as a reference. However, there are significant differences between the two. Primarily, the scope and extent of the proposed law is far wider.
However, talking to The Bhutanese, a media expert who requested anonymity said the government must first address the urgent matter of putting the Act in place. Enough awareness already prevails and can be further enhanced once the Act is passed. “A small country like ours shouldn’t really be looking at cost implications for such important issues.”
In addition, a law maker said that certain quarters thought people were not ready for democracy when it was introduced in the country so cost implications and the likes are just lame excuses.
Sangay Khandu said, when it comes to strengthening democracy, “we cannot begin to compare costs and benefits”.
“We do not stop spending on elections just because it’s expensive. In the end what RTI can achieve in terms of an efficient system may more than make up for the expenditure by allowing a vibrant democracy to flourish”, he added.
The head of legislative council, MP Kuenlay Tshering said, he is currently looking at the other bills which were submitted before Sangay Khandus draft RTI bill and will be in a position to comment only at a later stage.
MoIC’s RTI draft will be reviewed by international bodies and will also be compared with other International RTI Bills.
However, time is running out as two sessions of parliament is a prerequisite for any bill to be passed in addition to the fact of the DPT’s remaining tenure.
NC MP Jagar Dorji (Phd) said, “We need time when we pass laws. If you pass a law in one session there is a rush and that there is a parliamentary procedure rule. According to that it takes two sessions and sometimes three sessions for a bill to be passed”.
Supporting this, NC MP Sonam Kinga who has also been pursuing the RTI Bill rigorously, said: “Every bill has to require at least two sessions to be passed”. However, there will not be more than three sessions. After that the bill dies or either gets passed, he added.
Sonam Kinga, during the fifth session of the national council on June 2010, had raised concerns that the constitution of Bhutan guaranteed the right to information to every Bhutanese and that it was important to have an Act on this right.
During the same year, Sonam Kinga also referred to Lyonchen’s statement that a RTI Bill had been drafted by the high court and submitted to the cabinet through the information and communications ministry. Therefore, he submitted that the Bill be tabled in parliament for deliberations and adoption. This submission was supported by MPs from Gasa, Dagana and Paro dzongkhags.
During the sixth session of national council on Nov 2010 when Sonam Kinga asked the members if the government is considering tabling an RTI Bill in the parliament, Lyonpo Nandalal Rai had responded saying that the RTI bill was in a draft stage based on the high court’s version. “Lyonpo also stated that if the government does not make the RTI Act good within the government’s term, it will be very difficult in future. He said the RTI is not a low priority”, said Sonam Kinga.
Meanwhile, minister of information and communications (MoIC), Lyonpo Nandalal Rai refused to comment despite The Bhutanese’s repetitive attempts to make him do so.