The Columbia University team researching MoIC’s draft RTI Bill says RTI will benefit Bhutan, incur low cost of implementation and will be easier to have sooner than later
A five member team comprising of students from Columbia University (CU), working under Professor Annya Schiffrin in New York is now finalizing their report on the government’s version of the draft RTI (Right to Information) Bill.
The Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC), had in mid 2011 commissioned the team named ‘Bhutan RTI Law Group’ to do a thorough research on the Bhutan’s draft RTI Bill. The team had used a combination of research and interviews with various experts around the world including judges, journalists, parliamentarians and common citizens who have RTI laws in their country.
The research and findings of the team is expected to have a major impact on the MoIC’s draft RTI Bill.
Two members of the team, Ethan Wagner and Rebecca Chao who are in the country in an exclusive interview with The Bhutanese shared a few of the major findings and recommendations from the project report which will be presented by the team to MoIC sometime within this month.
“The report potentially could be ready in a few weeks and not longer than that. We are finalizing it now and once it’s all been reviewed, I think the plan is to make it public”, Ethan said.
Some findings and recommendations
Ethan said one of their strongest recommendations would be to suggest the government to give equal importance to both legislation and implementation.
The researchers found that there is a big difference sometimes between legislation and implementation. “You can write and design a beautiful law but then it can be a disaster when you actually put it into practice. Some laws may seem weak when you are reading it but in practice government has made it very significant”, Ethan said.
The team also learned that India has excellent RTI law but they have had a lot of problems in implementation owing to the large population.
“Countries like Sweden and US may not be very clear in their information laws but they have been effective and efficient in implementing it”, Ethan said.
The team also recommends making the Bill very clear and as simple as it can be. Ethan said the report seeks to provide a clear picture of what bodies can be excluded or what information should be protected and to what extent the Act shall be applicable citing the example of the Japanese Monarchy.
“We are following the principle that the law should be as clear and straightforward as possible so that it can be interpreted unambiguously both by the public and by the government officials responsible for implementing it, should it be passed”, Ethan said.
Ethan said, typically the RTI law could come into conflict with other laws that are already on the books, so it is important to make it clear in the RTI legislation itself, as to which law has precedence.
The project team shall also recommend the government to protect whistleblowers or persons filing RTI requests by way of allowing anonymous requesters of information.
“All Bhutanese citizens whether inside or outside Bhutan should be able to demand information without providing any justification and on anonymity”, Ethan said.
He said there are some instances where the person who files an RTI request comes under threat because of the information involved.
He said, many countries have provisions for anonymity in their RTI laws and it has worked well in uncovering corruption without posing any threat to the whistleblowers.
Benefits for Bhutan
He said RTI as identified by their research will basically benefit Bhutan in three major ways; it can improve social progress, economic development and accountability in governance.
Ethan highlighted people’s participation and efficient governance as significant results of RTI laws. “Most typically, most of the cases we hear are dealing with governance, transparency, accountability and eliminating corruption”, he said.
Ethan said RTI puts the power in hands of everyday citizens to be able to quickly and effectively set a process in motion to find out where things went wrong in building a bridge or any public activity.
He said, “in any government, even with the most well intentioned officials throughout the government, there is going to be instances where things don’t get done the way they are supposed to. Like money which doesn’t get spent properly on a project because of corruption or it’s just mismanagement”.
Ethan also said RTI also acts as a catalyst of economic development just by being able to make information public as to what kind of projects are underway and how much budget is involved. This, he said will motivate common people to come together to take up projects with ideas to make it cheaper and more effective. “Because of this information, people realize what economic opportunities are out there”, he added.
The sooner, the better
When asked about the timeliness of the Bill, Rebecca said it has to be better sooner than later.
She said eventually Bhutan will be bound to adopt RTI in future, so it’s better to have it now than some ten years later.
She cited lower costs as one benefit of having the Act now. “As a young democracy, there is no huge backlog of documents to keep track of so the cost of implementing it will be lower. If you wait 50 years, you have 50 years of materials or information that may be requested”, she said.
Ethan said the question of readiness could arise from factors like infrastructure and technologies that needs to be in place such as archiving information and information officers in the right place among others.
“There are some elements that require a bit if preparation but they are not elements that are so difficult that they require years of delay saying that we are not ready for RTI”.
A local participant had remarked at the seminar that Bhutan doesn’t need RTI because of the trust citizens’ share. Ethan said, “I hope it is true but I also see there are police in Bhutan and there are courts of laws. So you can trust each other but still have safeguards in place”.
He said the “USA took 120 years before they let women vote, 150 years before they let kids of different races go to the same school. So taking a long time to consider legislation before passing it is not the virtue. That does not indicate a good sign”.
Bhutan is likely to incur low costs of implementation
Ethan and Rebecca are of the opinion that a small country like ours may not require massive infrastructure or creating new governmental bodies for RTI.
At the low end there are countries like Belgium who have very low rates of RTI request or people seeking information. India has 100 requests for every 100,000 population in a year.
At the high end countries like Norway receives about 1000 RTI requests for every 100,000 people.
Ethan said Bhutan may receive an average of 100 RTI requests for every 100,000 population. “We are talking about 700 requests a year and that’s something pretty manageable. That’s less than two requests a day”, he said.
He said the existing information officers or media focal persons in each agency could take up the responsibility with a little bit of training.
“There are some resource needs that need to be put in place but in Bhutan’s case I think that will be pretty small”, he said.
Ethan also said in some cases adopting RTI actually saves money and that RTI can pay for itself. He said certain amount of money that is lost each year, pocketed, or siphoned by few people through corruption or just mismanagement can be saved. “Corruption versus how much money you have to spend on new infrastructure for RTI. Passing RTI may end up saving money in the end”, he said.
Model best suited for Bhutan
When asked which country’s model would best suit Bhutan, Ethan said it may not be wise for Bhutan to adopt any country’s model but Bhutan could use many models. Discard the ones which are not appropriate, adopt the useful elements and maybe create new ones that might apply to Bhutan specifically.
He also said the government may want to compare the draft with that of the private members bill proposed by National Council member Sangay Khandu. “I would support having both bills discussed among the parliamentarians and having whichever one people seem to agree on more or combine the good elements from each one. If something good comes out of the private members bill or the media or an average citizen, that idea should be discussed, debated and hopefully the best ideas need to be filtered and selected”, he said.
Of the 30 least corrupt countries according to the Corruption index 2011 from Transparency International, 24 have RTI laws and of the 30 most corrupted countries only 5 of them had RTI laws.
Ethan also said nine of the top ten happy nations have RTI provisions in place and that Bhutan’s GNH aims could be fostered by the existence of RTI laws. “There is a clear link between happiness and openness of government information”.
The draft RTI Bill is the second project which was assigned to students of CU. The first was the Government Advertising Guidelines, which was also sent for review by MoIC. The team will also incorporate the suggestion of the regional RTI experts who had come for the RTI awareness seminar.
The head of the team Professor Anya Schiffrin, is the Director of International Media, Advocacy and Communications Specialization, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York. She is also the wife of Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Eugene Stiglitz and both were in the country last week.
The Draft RTI Bill is most likely to skip the upcoming session of parliament and will most probably be put up for debate during the winter session.