As reported by Shamim Ashraf and Ashfaq Wares Khan in the on 30 March 2008:
:The Daily Star: Internet Edition
RTI law must protect govt whistle blowers

India's chief information commissioner says

The proposed Right to Information (RTI) Act must protect government whistle blowers and government officials must change their mindset accommodating the new law in their daily activities in order to make it effective, said India's Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah.

In an interview with The Daily Star, Habibullah said the government must put in place all institutional mechanisms before the RTI takes effect and raise public awareness to have an effective law from the start.

He said there are no clauses in the Indian RTI to protect government whistle blowers and "we have been using our own influence". "Your law can build on this to help protect whistle blowers," he added.

Habibullah, who left Bangladesh last week, said all procedural rules and laws of government departments would have to made consistent with the RTI, even if it requires amendment to existing rules and regulations.

He went on to say that the government departments must have information dissemination mechanism, with officials responsible for providing information through the public information officers (PIO).

"If the information is not adequate, it is the government official in charge of that particular document is liable, not the PIO," he added.

Habibullah said government officials are the largest users of the RTI in India, as they can follow up on their pension, promotion and a host of other rules and regulations inside the government.

He also said the law automatically changes the mentality of government officers, as there are significant institutional barriers that the RTI helps break down.

"The government is not transparent within itself. One wing is taking one decision and another completely different decision. This is something the act is helping to resolve."

Democracy and the RTI are intertwined, he said, explaining that the Official Secrets Act, 1923, shared by both Bangladesh and India, serves to protect the government. "But in a democracy if the public is the government, obviously such an Act is anachronism," he observed.

Citing the RTI, Habibullah said: "This act actually seeks to bring the government closer to the people and actually gives the people a sense of participation, an opportunity to participate in the governance, which is the essence of good democracy."

Farmers, 'classless people' and slum dwellers are also using RTI for their benefit as they are better aware of their rights and government welfare provisions, said Habibullah. NGOs and activists have been able to use the RTI to work with farmers and slum dwellers to ensure they receive their full due.

He cited the example of Geeta Diwan Bharma of Delhi, a town planner working to re-design all the slums, who used the RTI to help farmers claim compensation for their land acquired by the government.

Habibullah said most users "are of this nature" such as ration cardholders who use the RTI to check delays in government provision.

Asked about the effect of RTI on corruption, the Indian commissioner said: "RTI alone cannot eradicate corruption, but it can be used as evidence to fight corruption. "How you use the information gained through the RTI is up to you."

He added that although it is not specifically designed for the press, RTI has a provision that binds government officials to release requested information within 20 days. He however said Bangladesh has to improve its documentation.

"I have recommended to the Bangladesh draft committee to better catalogue and index all government documentation." All proceedings must start to be recorded for better government accountability, he noted.

He said India has made it mandatory to computerise all information and Bangladesh should also 'digitalise' all information, which would significantly assist the press.

Citing India's experience of not having everything in place before, he said the Commission started its work and the RTI took effect, which led to a lot of negative press coverage. He suggested that the government in Bangladesh learn from this experience and start 'public awareness' campaigns well before the law takes effect.

There is also the opportunity to follow the proceedings of appointing judges that would hold stakeholders accountable to the criteria used for each judge, said the CIC.

This would apply to any other constitutional post appointments and be stringently followed by the supreme recruitment body, which in Bangladesh is the Public Service Commission.

He said the RTI can, and does, exempt matters that concern national security, bilateral relations, fiduciary relations and parliamentary privileges.

But the police force should not be privy to those exemptions, he added.