It’s almost a week since the government’s draft Right to Information (RTI) Bill has been made accessible to the public for the first time. While there are people who applaud the comprehensive draft, there are also those who have their reservations. Also most people including Parliamentarians are still not aware of the draft which is accessible online.
Though the ministry hasn’t officially received any feedbacks, the draft has opened a Pandora’s Box among those who have read the draft.
The RTI draft law, in line with the international practice has a list of information that is exempted from the public right to information requirement of the Act.
Traditionally RTI laws in many countries allow public authorities to refuse any information, the disclosure of which would harm the sovereignty, integrity, security, or strategic, scientific or economic interests of the country, or its relations with foreign states.
While Bhutan, under section 32 of the draft Bill has adopted the same idea, an additional provision is included in the draft under ‘information that is exempt’.
This additional provision has raised doubts in the minds of stakeholders who are skeptical. For instance, a clause under Section 31 of the draft allows denial of information if “the overall harm caused by release of the information would outweigh the public interest in having such information disclosed”. “There is no need for this clause as it is clearly explained under section 32,” a legal expert said.
It might lead to confusion and unreasonable denial of information in future. “How do we define ‘public interest’ in this case,” he said.
Department of Information and Communication’s (DoIM) Head of Media Relations Division, Dawa Penjor, said “there might be information that might not necessarily be concerning national security but it might tarnish the interest of the public”.
He said a question to be asked is if there is any harm by keeping the particular clause. “If it brings harm, we should remove it but if it is for a better thing and makes the Act stronger, we should have it”, he added.
Another confusion cited by some is Section three and four of the draft Bill which entails the non-applicability of the RTI Act.
It basically states that the Act will not apply to information which shall be required under the RTI or any other existing laws to be made public without restrictions and any information which is available in the public domain.
This is because the draft Bill mandates all public authorities to make available to the public a detailed organizational and operational statement such as powers and responsibilities of its employees, regulations, manuals and records used in discharging its functions and matters related to important policies among others.
A lawmaker said “since the RTI Act shall not apply in this particular case, it is just going to prolong the process or lead to confusion”. He said since it does not mention the consequences on the public authority failing to make the information public then it can instead lead to denial of public information.
To this Dawa Penjor said the RTI law shall apply to information that is not available in the public domain. “If it’s not there, you can demand information,” he added.
Another problem with the Bill is that while there is penalty for officials not providing the required information the Act itself protects officials not providing information.
Officials who deny information under RTI the Act will be held accountable for damages and petty misdemeanor. However, another portion of the Act says that no suit should be brought against an official who acted in good faith.
The lawmaker said, “What is good faith? With such a vague definition every official can deny information under some pretext and then claim immunity under such a clause”.
A salient feature of the draft is that unless requests concern those deemed of a private or personal nature, the draft requires no reasons, or to provide personal details, other than a contact detail of any individual making a request.
The draft also entails provisions regarding fees for making a request, dispute resolution and time period for furnishing of requested information.
Any disputes related-to and arising under the RTI Act may appeal first at the local court level or the National Tribunal which shall be constituted by the government to act as an independent body.
The draft RTI Bill defines RTI, as information accessible under the Act that any public authority holds or controls.
The first proponent of a draft RTI Bill in Bhutan, National Council member Sangay Khandu said, “I am particularly pleased that the Government has decided to take the RTI discourse further, it is an important development in our democracy”.
The private member draft RTI bill sponsored and proposed by Sangay Khandu failed to garner the required-support to be tabled in parliament following many discussions in the NC.
As early as 2008, the government promised to have the RTI Act in place which gradually lost priority.
A five member team comprising of students from Columbia University (CU), working under Professor Annya Schiffrin in New York conducted a research on the government’s version of the 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.
Earlier, talking to The Bhutanese, one of the members of the team, Ethan Wagner said one of their strongest recommendations would be to suggest the government to give equal importance to both legislation and implementation.
The draft RTI Bill which was put up on the MoIC website on 20 July will entertain comments from public till 3 August.
DoIM hasn’t received any feedbacks from the public as yet.
The Bill would be forwarded to the cabinet as soon as possible upon receipt of feedbacks, following which it will be decided if the Bill should be tabled for debate in the 10th session of parliament this winter.