RTI receives lukewarm support from Opposition

The RTI bill has forwarded to NA’s legislative committee for further review and will be presented to the Assembly again on September 24

The long overdue Right to Information (RTI) bill which was tabled in the National Assembly (NA) on Thursday elicited little support from the Opposition party.

Information and Communications (MoIC) Minister DN Dungyel who introduced the bill to the assembly highlighted on the importance, beneficiaries and implementation of the Act if legislated. MoIC is the parent ministry responsible for drafting the government’s version of the bill.

Although the bill was first drafted about seven years ago, Opposition members called for more public consultation and questioned the need and timing to pass the Information Law. Members also cited negative implications of the bill on effective governance.

While most members endorsed the idea to garner public opinion, they also pointed out that RTI isn’t a new subject for it has been promised by the previous government to be passed during its tenure and much has been discussed on its legislation.

However, towards the end of the discussion, almost all members agreed to deliberate on the provisions of the bill by show of hands.

Member of Parliament (MP) from Pemagatshel Khar – Yurung, Zangley Dukpa in the Opposition party said it was important to weigh the advantages and disadvantages before passing the bill. While the Information Act may be of huge benefit, he said it would also cause inconveniences for the bureaucracy and ‘’paralyze’’ the government functionaries.

He said disputes between people requesting for information and the ones supposed to furnish it will eventually end up in court and that shall lead to inefficient service delivery.

Zangley Dukpa also said the media didn’t have issues with regard to furnishing information. “They seem to have their sources in every agency. We don’t know whether these informants are being paid or not,” he said.

MP Duptho of Trashiyangtse from among the Opposition members agreed that the bill would stipulate substantial benefit, but called for further consultation with public. The Opposition also questioned if the country was ready to introduce an information law.

Bardo-Trong, Zhemgang MP Leki Dorji said there is no such thing as a ‘good timing’ or ‘right time’ to introduce the legislation.

He cited examples such as the introduction of television, internet and the constitution to the country that was least prepared for it all. “We should learn from the Scandinavian nations where RTI has succeeded in curbing corruption, poverty alleviation and strengthening good governance,” MP leki said.

Economic Affairs Minister Norbu Wangchuk said there is no question about whether people are ready for the legislation for ‘information is power’. He said, for instance, farmers ask their representatives why farm roads to their villages are stalled halfway and cited examples of complains from members of the business community.

“This is not a new discussion. MoIC have earlier reported to have conducted awareness seminars, consultations and inputs from foreign experts. It’s not about whether people are ready, it’s about whether we as Parliamentarians are ready or not,” he added.

He also said that the bill merited extensive deliberation, clause by clause. “If we review it carefully, I see that the legislation shall have more advantage to the country and people and lesser short comings,” Lyonpo Norbu said.

Home Minister Damcho Dorji said the bill would appear like an extra liability and inconvenience. “It is the right of the people, the Constitution guarantees and as people’s representatives, denying them this right doesn’t make any sense.”

“When it comes to disputes, if the Act is in place, considering the situation, it is obvious that the court will order information to be furnished to the one who has requested it. So it is up to the individuals whether to adhere to the laws or to wait for a court’s verdict,” Lyonpo Damcho said.

He said the interest of the people, particularly the future generations should be considered.

“We shall respect the decision to hold further public consultations if the Assembly resolves to do so,” the Home Minister concluded.

Opposition MP Dorji Wangdi opined that there was no need for a separate Act when the Constitution already grants the right to the people. “Having a separate law will only weaken the strength of this fundamental right,” he said.

The original draft RTI bill had been drafted in 2006 along with the Constitution by the then High Court as the Constitution guaranteed the Right to Information under Fundamental Rights.

However, from 2008 itself the first elected government though making many verbal commitments put the bill on the backburner for many years.

In 2008, former Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley in a meeting with senior civil servants said RTI would be introduced soon after catering to some important bills. The first draft went through a revision in 2009.

Former MoIC Minister Nandalal Rai had told the National Council (NC) during the 2010 winter session of Parliament that the RTI Act would be ready before 2012.

“So, we have been waiting for the bill to be introduced,” Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said. “If we fail to pass the bill, any government that comes to power in future will refuse to legislate it considering the inconveniences and issues associated with it,” he added.

The RTI Act, he said will promote governmental transparency and accountability and most importantly curb corruption. “RTI is prerequisite for a strong democracy,” he said.

During a Round Table Meeting with donors 2011, the former Works and Human Settlement Minister Yeshey Zimba, in response to a query, assured that the bill would materialize before the end of the first Parliament’s term.

A five-member research team comprising of students from Columbia University working under Professor Annya Schiffrin in New York has been involved in the government’s version of the draft RTI bill.

MoIC had in mid 2011 commissioned the team named ‘Bhutan RTI Law Group’ to do a thorough research on the Bhutan’s 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.

The second draft was then shared with the Columbia University research team.

Two researchers of the team, Ethan Wagner and Rebecca Chao who were in the country in June 2012 told The Bhutanese during their visit that RTI will benefit Bhutan, incur low cost of implementation and will be easier to have sooner than later

They also pointed out that some of the happiest and most transparent ranked countries in the world have RTI.

In May 2012, an awareness seminar was held by the Department of Information and Media (DoIM) in the capital. The third draft was then shared on the MoIC’s website the following month for comments from stakeholders.

However, while DoIM had come up with a final draft in December last year, it was shelved as the former Cabinet decided not to introduce any new bills in their 10th Parliamentary session which was also the last for the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa administration.

First publicised on the MoIC website in July last year, the 2013 RTI bill went through a number of revisions. MoIC made a presentation on the RTI bill to the Cabinet last month, on August 29 following which Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay has posted the Bill online including his blog for feedback and comments.

The bill was finally decided to be tabled in Parliament by the current cabinet during its sixth session held on 3 August 2013.

NA’s legislative committee will review the bill for presentation to the house on September 24.

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