The Draft Right to Information (RTI) Bill, drafted by National Council (NC) member Sangay Khandu as a private members bill is likely to perish at its preliminary stage, given the poor response of National Council MPs.
During the 63rd plenary session of the NC, on 4th May 2012, the legislative committee of NC in its findings said that the bill needed a lot more time for research and consultations and that it may not be possible to introduce the bill in the NC in this session.
The 63rd session, however, also saw some members who were in favor of the bill and the session concluded with the decision to allow a presentation from the proponent, Sangay Khandu, who was away on a constituency visit then.
NC members Tshering Dorji from Haa, Tshewang Lhamo from Chukha, Rinzin Rinzin from Lhuentse, eminent member Tashi Wangmo and Ugyen Tshering from Paro supported the Draft RTI Bill. The bill, however, drew criticism from the Trashigang NC member Sonam Kinga and eminent member Karma Yezer Raydi.
Discussions and debate on the Draft RTI Bill was the highlight of latest plenary session of the National Council yesterday.
Sangay Khandu delivered a presentation as scheduled with the aim of gaining the required 13 votes out of the 25 so that the Bill could be put forward for debate in the upcoming session of the parliament.
However, the prolonged session concluded with the house deciding to re-discuss the Bill once again during the last plenary meeting sometimes next week. The signs though indicate that the RTI bill will not be presented in the NC for the upcoming parliament session.
Sangay Khandu said, “I made several presentations of the RTI Bill but while the NC is in support of transparency and RTI, they also feel that it is a little too early for Bhutan to have a RTI bill”.
“The final decision is subject to the last meeting next week”, he clarified.
Talking to The Bhutanese, one of the members of parliament (MP) from the NC cited several other reasons as to why the Draft RTI Bill may not be included in the agenda for the 9th session of parliament.
He said the NC Thrizin recently received a letter from the National Assembly (NA) Speaker Jigme Tshultim stating that there is a need for clear cut guidelines before introducing any private member bill to the parliament.
The letter said that owing to the lack of proper procedure, the national flag bill which was the first private member bill that had been endorsed by NC earlier and sent to NA has been put away and will not be discussed in the upcoming parliament.
This letter would have had a direct impact on the Draft RTI Bill being discussed in the next parliamentary session as the RTI Bill was also sponsored by MP Sangay Khandu as a private members bill.
The source said that many MPs are of the opinion that the bill may not see the light of the day in the National Assembly.
He added that some members may not have liked the fact that the draft bill was introduced in the media instead of bringing it first in the plenary.
The MP who talked to The Bhutanese said, “at least if the NC could take a stand on the RTI bill, then it also falls on the NA to take up on the bill”.
He said that the numerous postponement of the bill could have been deliberate with an intention to kill it before being tabled in parliament.
However, a few National Assembly (NA) members that The Bhutanese talked to were in favor of the Draft Bill stating the importance of having it enacted.
Gelephu MP, Prem Kumar Gurung is one of NA members who said, “This bill deserves and should receive sufficient support from other members to pass it”.
He said RTI is a necessary tool to facilitate access to information which is a fundamental right and that he would welcome the discussions on the bill in the upcoming parliament session. “It will also help the government in making responsible decisions,” he added.
The Bill will was put up on a host of websites and social media pages to enable people to see the bill and recommend necessary changes to the bill.
NC member Rinzin Rinzin said, “We are still debating on this bill and honestly the house is divided. While some think it’s too early, some feels like more consultative and research work needs to be done”
He said, the legislative committee is of the opinion that may be the bill came to the house too soon and there is a need for more consultative meetings with stakeholders.
However, NC member Ugyen Tshering said, “There is no such thing as right time for a RTI Act. If you wait for the time, there won’t be a perfect timing. The moment you are able to push it is the best time.”
NC Dr Jagar Dorji said, “We discussed it today but couldn’t come to a decision but I am supporting the bill.”
Another MP on the condition of anonymity said that even if the bill comes out to be the best, it lacked in the areas of consultations and also its implementation.
In the meantime, MoIC’s department of information and media will be hosting an RTI awareness program on May 30 and 31st.
A total of four experts from India, Bangladesh and Singapore have been invited as resource persons for the program.
The awareness program is aimed at educating the participants on implementation of the RTI Act and issues related to it.
Department of Information and Media (DOIM) Director Kinley T Wangchuk said, “More importantly the resource people will be telling us about the implementation issues such as setting up of basic infrastructure, setting up of information commission, redressal and request system, release of information and others”.
“We thought it will be good to get an idea of all these issues involved and also sensitize the people who will actually be the beneficiaries of the Act”, he added.
Participants at the program will comprise Law makers, government officials, private citizens, representatives from NGOs and media houses among others.
The NC Thrizin refrained from making any comments.
Two sessions of parliament is a prerequisite for a Bill to be passed except for ‘Urgent Bill or ‘Budget Bill’ and RTI Act doesn’t fall under either of the categories according to NC Thrizin Namgye Penjore who had talked to The Bhutanese earlier.
This means, if Sangay Khandu’s version of the Draft Bill doesn’t get through, RTI Act will not be enacted within the tenure of the current government.
As early as 2008, the government promised to have the RTI Act in place which gradually lost priority as the Lyonchen and senior government officials cited other important issues to cater to.
While Sangay Khandu’s private member bill has already come a long way, the government’s version is unlikely to be tabled in the next parliament as reported by officials in the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC) and members of the Legislative committee.
The RTI Bill being introduced by the NC MP, Sangay Khandu is based mainly on the High Court version of 2007.
MP Sangay Khandu said that what inspired him to take up the RTI Bill was when he was denied two audit reports one on the Bhutan Lottery scam and the other on the Constituency Development Grant by the Royal Audit Authority. He also said that the constitution guarantees Right to Information to Bhutanese citizens.
The Bill covers information that has to be given by all government agencies like the executive, judiciary, legislature, judiciary, ministry, departments commissions, agencies, public corporations, corporations with substantial government stake or funding and NGOs substantially funded by the government.
Information that is exempt from this Bill are information that affects the national security, sovereignty, strategic and economic interests of the nation. Also exempt are personal information with no relation to public activity whose disclosure would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy, but the personal information which cannot be denied to the Parliament cannot be also denied to an individual.
Information that protects intellectual property rights, patents, copyright and information prohibited by court order is also exempt.
The RTI Bill cannot be used to find the names and identity of citizens or employees who help expose corruption by sharing information about it.
All information under RTI would have to be furnished within 30 days from application and an extension of 15 days will only be granted if information asked is of a large volume of records affecting government function.
The bill also reflects the need for infrastructure and enforcing agencies for successful implementation of the RTI Act.