Indicators and benchmarks for transparency and Right To Information in the SAARC region – Part 2

Bhutanese members of the Transparency Advocacy Group (TAG), a South Asian regional think tank focusing on transparency and Right To Information presented a set of indicators for assessing the state of transparency and RTI in the SAARC region.

 

2. Comprehensive Coverage of the Act

The RTI Act should cover all levels of the government like the Prime Minister’s office, Ministries, Autonomous agencies, public agencies and constitutional bodies like Election Commission.

Apart from the executive the Act should also comprehensively cover the Judiciary, the Legislature and the security forces.

The RTI also should cover all corporations, NGOs and other bodies substantially or even partly funded by the government.

International institutions and bodies working in the country should also be covered.

It is a misnomer that private companies should not be covered by the Act because these companies either receive government subsidy, tax breaks or make use of public resources like mines, water, land etc. In an increasingly globalized world where outsourcing of government activities has become a norm the activity of these companies also significantly affect public lives.

The Act should also be comprehensive in not only coverage of institutions but also information which should include all written, typed, paper, electronic, audio visual and electronic information.

It should also cover file noting, minutes of meetings, basis of decisions and all relevant notes some of which don’t necessarily come in the public domain.

 

3. The Act should have a proactive or suo-moto disclosure clause

The Right to Information Act in spirit and implementation should aim to disclose as much information as possible in the public domain without the need for applicant to file individual request for information. The Act should have a suo-moto disclosure of all types of public information which should be frequently updated. The information should also be organized in proper heading and subjects and be easily accessible through publications, websites, public information boards or focal information officers.

Transparency and giving of information should be the norm and secrecy the exception.

 

4. Limited Exemptions

Often a bogey raised by those not in favor of RTI is National Security, State Secrets and other secrecy and stability clauses. In an effort to excessively accommodate them a RTI Act can often end up being a compromised or a weak Act.

It is therefore important to ensure that for an RTI Act the exemptions should be kept to a minimum or only allowed on compelling and realistic grounds of public harm being caused.

Other exemptions like Intellectual property rights, Copy rights and private information should be well defined and legitimate.

Even for those information that is exempted like private information of a politicians life these should be an override clause if there demonstrable public interest involved.

 

5. User Friendly 

Bihar’s example of filing information requests over the phone is an example of how friendly and convenient the RTI can be made.

The RTI at its heart is more often needed by the rural folk, the illiterate and the poor in whose lives officialdom plays a much more important than in the lives of more well off and educated people.

A highly technical, legalistic and cumbersome process in acquiring information will be as good as killing the Act before it can even take effect.

The RTI Act should be comprehensive but be simple in its language and rules with clear and unambiguous definitions.

The cost of procuring information should be kept very low and even subsidized by the state for those who are below the poverty line.

RTI should be accessible for illiterate by allowing people to file their information requests verbally and also have it supplied to them both in a written and verbal format.

RTI should also be accessible to the differently abled.

Adequate measures must be put in place to insure that the RTI facility is available in rural areas.

The RTI applicants also must ensure that there is very little bureaucracy and red tape involved. If an authority to which the request is made is not the correct authority or if there are a multiplicity of authorities involved then the system should ensure that the request is transferred to the correct authorities and information is provided in a timely manner.

RTI as a fundamental right should also be made available to non citizens or expatriates in a country.

There should be no need to give the reason for why the information is required.

The information request should avoid bureaucratic forms and instead information should be made available with even simple written and verbal requests.

 

6. Reasonable time limits

Information delayed beyond a certain time period can often lose its value and effectiveness. Keeping this in mind information in a good RTI Act should be provided within a reasonable time frame.

In Bhutan’s Draft RTI Bill the delay is excessive with a initial 30 day waiting period that can be extended to 45 days and then onto three months.

Ideally the first waiting day period can be 10 days with additional time of another 10 days or so. The grounds of extension should also be given only on very compelling grounds and should be exception rather than the norm. Frequent extensions for certain information should lead to enquiries and system corrections.

In cases where life and liberty is under threat like an ongoing court case the information should be provided within 24 hours.

 

7. Penalty provisions

The RTI should have adequate penalty provisions for refusing or delaying information. These penalty provisions should have an adequate deterrent effect to discourage secrecy.

However, the penalty must be fixed at senior levels too so that information officers do not turn into sacrificial lambs due to the reluctance of senior official to part with information.

The Act should also have provisions to increase the rate of penalty for organizations and officers who consistently delay or refuse information.

The penalty can range from monetary fines for minor violations to suspension in more serious cases.

 

8.  An effective appeal system for RTI 

There should be a decentralized Information Commission with its offices not only in the capital but also states and districts.

The Information Commission should enjoy a constitutional status so that both legally and also institutionally it can override other laws and institutions. As part of this constitutional status the Commission should be independent of administrative control by the government and be free to function independently.

The members of the Commission should be honest and upright officials with no negative rack record selected by a panel of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Speaker of the lower house.

In case anyone is not happy with the commission’s decisions one should have right of appeal to a court.

The decision of the Commission and also the court on RTI application cases should be within a limited time frame. In case of delay by the commission the local court can intervene and in case of delay by a local court the High Court can be moved.

The Commission should have quasi judicial powers to summon people, examine and question them, secure information and penalize those who have violated the RTI Act.

The budget and manpower of the Commission should not be at the mercy of prevailing governments and budges but should be based on parliamentary approval.

 

9. A responsive RTI Act

The RTI Act should have provisions in it which makes it incumbent on organizations to study and analyze the number and quality of RTI applications and also review the information revealed by them.

As part of measuring the agency’s transparency performance the agency’s ability to reduce RTI applications by addressing the systemic problems should also be recognized under the Act.

The RTI Act should be reviewed by a cross cutting body or committee appointed by the Parliament and with representation from the ruling government, opposition party, judiciary, private media, NGOs and others to review the RTI Act and suggest new and progressive amendments if needed.

The Information Commission should also have a cell within its organization which periodically will come out with a report assessing the quality of information given on proactive or suo moto grounds and suggest improvements.

 

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