The RTI Bill being introduced by the NC MP, Sangay Khandu, is based mainly on the High Court version of 2007.
As per the bill a Bhutanese citizen can go to any government agency and ask for official information, which the agency has to provide within a certain time period or face prosecution in court.
For example, a farmer asking the Gewog office to give the particulars of the water supply budget that never reached water to his house. Another example is if a civil servant feels he is being discriminated against on a promotion, he can ask for information on his promotion evaluation.
Information you can get
The Bill covers information that has to be given by all government agencies like the executive, judiciary, legislature, judiciary, ministry, department commission, agency, public corporation, corporations with substantial government stake or funding and NGOs substantially funded by the government.
Information would cover all information in the custody of an office or information that it has access to in connection with its function. These could be in the form of written papers, documents, drawings, electronic recordings, physical object, emails, advices, reports, memoranda, press releases, video image, photographic, film, audio and physical records, including all records of all administrative decisions.
The Bill does however mention information that is exempt from this Bill. One is information that affects the national security, sovereignty, strategic and economic interests of the nation. Personal information with no relation to public activity whose disclosure would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy, but a rider is that 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. Commercials secrets and trade secrets the disclosure of which would harm a competitive third party unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants a disclosure is exempt. Prohibition by court order and information received in confidence from foreign government is also exempt.
Information which can endanger the life or physical safety of any person or source of information given in confidence for law enforcement purposes and information that could impede the process of investigation or arrest of offenders.
Information in the possession, custody or control of an office on the condition which is cannot be shred due to an explicit agreement or because of the intrinsic nature of the information is exempt.
There are two major and slightly controversial additions in exempt information. One is the disclosure of information that would cause a breach of Parliament.
The other is cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of ministers, Secretaries and other officers. The condition here is that exemption can be applied only when the decision of the Council of Ministers, their reasons and the materials on the basis of which they took their decision shall be made public after the decision has been taken.
The RTI Bill covers those people exposing corruption as the Bill cannot be used to find the names and identity of citizens or employees who help expose corruption by sharing information about it.
Information within 30 days
All information will 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, consultations are needed to clear the request and also to protect any government interest or rights of any person.
A maximum three-month extension would be possible in exceptional cases like a national calamity of large proportions. But any extension or denial would have to be submitted in written form by the public authority.
If any information is not provided within time or any reasonable extension not applied for in writing, then it can be taken as denial.
In case of denial of any information, BICMA can be approached and if information is still denied then an appeal can be made to the High Court which will decide the case under the civil and criminal procedures code of Bhutan on the lines of administrative adjudication, liability for damages and denial of information.
No request for information will have to be made for information that by law is required to be made public and is for public use.
In case a person cannot give the information request in writing then the Information Officer has to help the applicant.
If a request for information is denied then the information officer in writing has to inform the person the reason for the denial, name and designation of those denying the information and a statement of the right to appeal.
BICMA to implement Act
A new change from the earlier version is that Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) will be responsible for the implementation of the Act as the Central Information Commission. Appeals against non disclosure of information will be made to BICMA after which it will be appealed to the high court.
In the earlier version the High Court was directly responsible to implement the Act. This new clause may come as a surprise to BICMA that currently is a government regulatory body dealing with the Media. The Act would give it functions equivalent to that of a constitutional body.
In most other countries a separate constitutional body is appointed like a Central Information Commission with Commissioners to look at the first stage of appeals. They are also given power to fine non compliant individuals and agencies.
Under the Act, it will be mandatory for every government agency to set up an information cell headed by an information officer who has to provide the information requested for.
The public authority will also have to make available to the public an updated detailed organizational and operational statement that describes its structure, functions, budget, decision making procedures, powers and duties of officials, laws, all categories of official information, advisory boards and committees, telephone directory of all employees, facilities for obtaining information, policies, execution of subsidy programs, public consultation forums and receipt of concessions and permits granted by it
The public authority will also have to submit to the Parliament an annual report on the compliance of the authority with its obligations under the Act. The earlier version had mentioned the Prime Minister instead of the Parliament.
The Royal government led by the Ministry of Information and Communication will be the custodian and have to ensure compliance. The Ministry will also be responsible for education and sensitization on RTI.