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However, this is an outdated view not only in Bhutan’s context but also globally where governments are opening up to the public in the interest of transparency and democratic governance.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.
“Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.”