Public Information is Public Property

The MoIC minister in an interview with regard to the RAA’s report on the Domestic Airways questioned how this paper got the information or the report.

Now, though some may dismiss the minister’s defamatory insinuations as an attempt to divert attention from the real issues, the minister’s flawed logic on official information must be addressed.

This is because the view that official information is the sole property of the government to be locked up in secrecy is also held by many other politicians and bureaucrats.

However, this is an outdated view not only in Bhutan’s context but also globally where governments are opening up to the public in the interest of transparency and democratic governance.

And transparency is the best weapon to fight corruption and strengthen good governance.

Apart from international best practices there are also constitutional provisions that dictate that every Bhutanese citizen has a Right to Information under the section of Fundamental Rights. This is backed up by other sections of Freedom of Press and Freedom of Speech under Fundamental Rights.

Under Right to Information any citizen can take any government agency or official denying public information to court. This is also because the Constitution as the supreme law trumps over any norms, rules or even Acts.

Besides the constitutional and legal concept of official public information belonging to the public there are also economic and democratic arguments.

The economic argument is that we as tax payers fund the government, and thus the government which comprises of public servants like civil servants and politicians are accountable to us for every penny. Even foreign aid that is give to us for our capital works is given for the benefit of the people of Bhutan.

In Bhutan sovereign power was given to the people and not to politicians per say by our Monarchs. Therefore, the democratic reasoning is that in a democracy the people are the source of sovereign power which through elections is partially delegated to politicians. Therefore, both politicians and civil servants have to be accountable to the people who are the source of their power and authority.

The MoIC minister or any other politician will have every right to be incensed if any media outlet goes after private aspects of their lives that have no bearing on public interest.

However, no agency in Bhutan has the right to either withhold or be exclusively privy to information that concerns public affairs and the public purse, and especially not if the information pertains to the misuse of the public purse.

In most cases the withholding of public information is an example of poor and opaque governance, while in some cases it can also be construed as a criminal act of corruption and collusion.

In Bhutan one of the biggest challenges to fighting corruption is the lack of action taken on oversight reports sent to the government. Apart from a few cases that attract the public spotlight the vast majority of reports by various oversight and regulatory agencies are either not acted on or are implemented half heartedly.

It is only when issues and information comes in the public domain through leaks by whistleblowers do the wheels of governance start moving.

It is also only in autocratic and dictatorial states like North Korea where whistleblowers are declared as colluders or even thieves.

Apart from the undemocratic and self defeating nature of intransparent systems the other major reason to share information is the fallibility of human nature.

Be it at home, school or the workplace human nature makes most people gloss over their failures and weaknesses and instead focus on and highlight their achievements. A student will not show his poor result cards with the same energy and gusto that he shows off his good result cards to his parents.

The government is nothing but a bigger collection of fallible human beings and so the same is true for the government, but the consequences is far deeper and wide reaching. The government, in many instances, having glossed over its failures or strong symptoms of a deeper malaise may genuinely think it is doing a great job. However, the reality could be very different.

A prominent example is the 2008 Wall Street Crash and the Global Financial Crisis where a corporate influenced American government ignored early warning signs of the crisis to the point of removing important regulatory mechanisms which could have prevented the crash.

So the government and its functionaries should be subject to a very public checks and balances by its citizens.

At the end of the day there are very strong constitutional, legal, economic, democratic and other arguments on how public information is public property and why a politician or civil servant cannot keep it as their sole privilege.

QUOTE

“Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.”
Bruce Coville

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16 comments

  1. The natural resources are public properties too! Why not expose them too so that general people are benefited as against few influential lots.

  2. Yes, the huge chunk of natural resources, particularily the land and mine quarries had been in grab my the most poweful and the influential people. Now, it’s time that the media expose ths practices of corruption and fix and nail the accountable and the gulity person/people and prosecute them to the court of law.

    • But this paper will not touch people like Gup Ugen / Lhaki Industires, Tashi Group of Companies, Gup Sonam Dukpa and many others, etc, the very people who are making a fortune out of the countries natural resources. Like I said earlier, it is time to take stock of the situation and maybe to nationalize businesses like mining etc.

  3. Here again Nandalal has put his foot in his mouth, or so it seems, so eloquently put by this paper. I think one must first understand what the right to information means. Does it mean that any citizens has the right to go to any agency and demand information on anything? My guess is there are certain information that is private and public officials are custodian of those information and may have a need to access them but it does not mean every citizen has that right. For example should anyone have the right to go to the bank and get information about your balance. The bank of course is a custodian of public information and the citizens have the right to information but does that mean anyone can see everybody’s information? Does that mean I can ask the banks to reveal to mean who has the most money in their accounts?

    I think what the right to information means is that every citizens should have equal access to information that is for Public consumption. After all Bhutan as a country would be in quite an awkward position if we revealed secret information to our citizens that other foreign nations shared with us in confidence.

    Similarly I think it is important for our citizens to understand the way the Royal Audit functions. While I give my hats off to the wonderful job that the RAA officials do, I must point out that their first “draft” report is at best over zealous and points out issues where none exists. The agency concerned is asked to clarify and responses are shared with RAA wherein those memo’s are dropped. In fact there are a number of such exchanges to ensure that similar issues are dropped. It is only when due process is completed that the report is shared with the National Assembly wherein it becomes a Public document.

    Now I wonder why the document was shared without completing this  arduous, but necessary process? Was there a hidden agenda behind this? I guess we will never know because this paper will not publish this response.

    • individual’s bank account details is private and personal which as rightly said should be accessible to private individual only, where as the information regarding details of a work funded with tax payers money is public. therefore there is nothing wrong to get an access to information regarding misuse of public fund as it is not funded from the purse of MOIC minister……

      • As one pointed out:Looks like there are standard procedures before the RAA’s finding gets finalised. RTI does not stand for all the information to be transparent.Information threatening to the National security can’t be accessed to people.So does the unfinalised reports of the agency doesn’t fall under RTI. Like every rights, RTI too have restrictions..
        Mentioning about the Wall street Crash, i find it very funny.I can only hope, he actually understood the details about it.

  4. I agree that Public Information is Public Property, however, how can a draft report be considered public property, this is how arrogant this paper has become, they don’t even want to accept that they are even a little bit wrong.

    • Especially cases which are flooded with corruption, it would be for the benefit of public even to have just not one draft but series of drafts(1, 2, 3, final). I think it will also benefit the accused because if they have not done wrong the blame will shift to the other side. Unless one is guilty one should not care about leakages.

  5. Come on everybody, the Media has a responsibility to share information with the Public to inform the Public of what is happening in the country. I guess since both democracy and the Media are in their infant stages there are still issues to be cleared. For example the constitution grants every citizen the right to information. But how should that be translated into action is still up in the air and I guess the Media has been using that as an opportunity to full throttle.

    Many of the agencies linked with democracy in the country have also yet to find their legs in this complex institution. ECB has conducted a number of elections which in my opinion is just the beginning of their responsibilities. They have a much larger mandate of ensuring fair and just elections which go beyond processes of elections. I believe they are the agency that must set rules for the Media, and other Public broadcast mediums to ensure that such mediums are not used to sway politics. Even a simple thing like given one politician a few more opportunities to be seen or heard will play a great deal in influencing the Public. The ECB must ensure balanced reporting by the Media or else it will have failed as a promoter of free and fair elections. Yes Agencies like BICMA also have a role to play but in the end they must be guided by the ECB whose primary responsibility is to conduct free and fair elections.

    So ECB has a long and difficult task ahead. One that must be traversed, from a judicial perspective, as blindly as possible.

  6. Why this paper is not interested in digging the corruptions in mining sectors? 

  7. theBhutanese=theUseless

  8. Mining Sectors=PDP Sectors

  9. “At the end of the day there are very strong constitutional, legal, economic, democratic and other arguments on how public information is public property and why a politician or civil servant cannot keep it as their sole privilege”. – this says it all. Our Monarchs gift of democracy and rights to us their people must be protected. The government must never function as some sort of private body against the rights of people. They are there because we have elected them… Our democracy is young and yes we have teething problems…. but not at the expense of constitutional rights-ever!

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