The National Assembly (NA) on Friday introduced the much discussed Right to Information (RTI) bill for discussion along with some progressive amendments and recommendations suggested by the NA Legislative Committee.
The NA Legislative Committee Chairman, Lekey Dorji, introducing the RTI bill said, “We looked at RTI laws across the world, in countries like Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, India and many others. We also had consultations with various stakeholders and met with around 40 agencies and groups, and had numerous committee meetings.”
He appealed to the Parliament to look at the RTI bill through the lens of ordinary Bhutanese citizens and not along political lines or interests.
The Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC) Minister, D.N Dhungyel, said that the ministry, in turn, consulted with around 35 groups over a period of time.
The discussion, lasting for one and half hours, was able to deliberate and decide on 8 Sections of the RTI bill, out of a total of 74 Sections.
The discussions started with Member of Parliament (MP) for Khar-Yurung constituency, Zangley Drukpa, stating that he does not support the RTI bill. The Speaker then made it clear to the house that the current session was not to discuss general views on the RTI bill, but to comment on the specific sections.
MP Zangley Drukpa created a quite a stir in the house, calling for the private sector and media to be included under RTI, as he alleged that if RTI’s goal was to fight corruption then corruption was not only in the government, but also in the private sector and media. This was an echo of the post 2013 elections stance that harped on how unfair some of the media had been to DPT during the elections.
Home Minister, Damcho Dorji, said that RTI would be used to fight corruption in the private sector as information of all private sector misdeeds would, anyhow, be with the government, for example, a fake letter or document could be accessed under RTI.
MP Lekey Dorji clarified that the RTI Act was primarily meant for those agencies and organizations that used government funds. He also said that the Act already covered certain private or corporate agencies that used government funds or provided public services.
MP Zangley Drukpa did not find any further support on the issue from the house. During the break, a Committee Member opined that if the private sector was included, as asked by MP Zangley, then virtually every shopkeeper, farmer and citizen would be subject to provide information, like a government agency which would harass private citizens and defeat the whole purpose of the Act.
An important change was the NA refusing to endorse the NA Committee’s new clause under Section 6 which says, “The government shall provide adequate budget to the ministry to promote, inform, educate and disseminate information on RTI.”
The Home Minister said that this was not necessary as it would lead to a new precedent, whereby, every new bill could have a same clause. He said the current system of Annual Budget allocation and Supplementary Budget allocation would be enough and that the government would support when it was necessary.
The Minister for Works and Human Settlement, Dorji Choden, also said that there was no need for such a clause.
The MoIC Minister said such a clause was important to secure funds for creating awareness on RTI and it would be difficult to work without adequate budget. This comment was in the context of RTI awareness not being given enough budget by both the former and current government.
MP for Panbang constituency, Dorji Wangdi, also reiterated the need to have this provision and to have an adequate budget.
The house, in principle, acknowledged that it was imperative to provide adequate budget for the purpose. However, it was deliberated that it was not appropriate to specify in the Act as future legislation would demand the same provision.
Earlier Section 7(3) had said, “Ensure that every regulation and amendment made thereof under this Act is made public after it is approved by the Cabinet.” The house adopted the NA Committee’s proposal to remove the word ‘amendment’ and instead replace it with ‘regulations’ as the Cabinet cannot amend Acts.
Section 8 that dealt with the appointment of an information officer, within three months of the passing of the Act. to provide information saw a lot of discussion. The NA Committee had also made a further addition which said, “The designated Information Officer shall be of such rank or grade with necessary authority to summon information from the agency for the purpose of the Act.”
Here, MP Dorji Wangdi, said that three months was too short a period and proposed a six month period. He was seconded by the MP for Jomotshangkha-Martshala constituency, Pelzang Wangchuk who even proposed 8 months period. The MoIC Minister said that three months would not be enough. Even the Speaker asked if the agencies would really be ready, within three months, to implement the RTI. MP for North Thimphu constituency, Kinga Tshering, also raised a question on the expenses of such a move.
However, the confusion was cleared when the Home Minister clarified that the three-month period was only for appointment for information officers and not for the complete implementation of the Act which was dealt with in other clauses.
MP Lekey Dorji also clarified that there would not be much financial implication as he reminded the house that the previous government had already appointed information officers and that officers could be chosen from the available manpower in the government.
Another issue that had discussions stirring was when the Minister for Economic Affairs, Norbu Wangchuk, questioned the need to specify the rank or grade of information officials who have to summon information as various agencies had different set ups including the local government.
The former MoEA Minister, MP Khandu Wangchuk, said that it would be better to have some senior and capable people to summon information, otherwise appointing junior people would ensure that information does not come properly.
The NA resolved to keep the NA Legislative Committee’s amendment which says, “A Public Service Provider shall within three months of the enactment of this Act, designate competent Information Officer to provide information to persons requesting information under this Act. The designated Information Officer shall be of such rank and grade with necessary authority to summon information from the agency for the purpose of this Act”.
Further discussions on RTI will take place on February 3.