21 June, 2008 - The Right to Information Act, once passed, will allow ordinary Bhutanese to be informed and get a responsible, transparent and accountable government. Though the Act was drafted in 2007, the cabinet is yet to introduce it in the Assembly. “Information is absolutely critical for fighting corruption and the government should introduce the act and enforce it at the earliest date possible,” said the chairperson of the anti corruption commission (ACC), Neten Zangmo.
“The Right to Information Act will allow a fair and just system, sensitise the administrative machinery and empower the people,” said the chief justice, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.
On the origins of RTI Draft Act, the chief justice, who headed the drafting committee said, “His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo in his great wisdom had earlier asked that the draft of all major acts be ready before the constitution is passed.”
Under RTI, any Bhutanese 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 can question the executing agencies on how exactly money was spent for his water supply. “RTI is therefore an enforceable public right to access information in possession of any government ministry, department, nationalised industry, public corporation or any other organisation substantially financed by the government,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye. “Information here pertains to all written papers, documents, drawings, electronic, photographic, film, audio and physical records, including all records of all administrative decisions.” The government agency would not be allowed to question the person seeking information or set conditions for giving information.
“The only exempt information shall be those affecting the security and sovereignty of the nation, personal information with no relation to public activity, protected intellectual property rights, prohibition by court order and prohibition by another act which mentions this act, substantially diverts public resources and interferes with lawful functions,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.
He said that the clauses could also not be misused by any authority to deny valid information. “Apart from national security issues, the police and the courts will also come under this act,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.
Under the Act, it will be mandatory for every government agency to set up an information cell headed by an information officer. The responsible ‘public authority’ under the act will be the head of the public authority itself. So it is likely that, in the case of ministries, the public authority will be the secretaries, according to the chief justice.
“The public authority will also have to make available to the public an annually updated detailed organisational and operational statement that describes its structure, functions, budget, decision making procedures, powers, laws, all categories of official information, advisory boards, telephone directory of all employees, facilities for obtaining information, policies, receipt of concessions and permits granted by it,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.
The public authority will also have to maintain all information in an organised and easily reproducible manner and provide it in the desired format at the cheapest cost possible. “The public authority will also have to submit to the prime minister an annual report on the compliance of the authority with its obligations under the Act,” he added.
“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 needed to clear the request and also to protect any government interest or rights of any person,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye. He also said that 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,” said the chief justice.
“In case of denial of any information, the court can be approached which will decide the case under the civil and criminal procedures code of Bhutan on the lines of administrative adjudication, liability for damages, denial of information and contempt of court,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.
On introducing the Act, Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley did not commit to a specific date but said that the current acts were taking longer than expected to be passed and also that the cabinet would have to discuss the RTI Act before introducing it.
The minister for works and human settlement, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, said, “The Act is important for democracy, fighting corruption and keeping people informed.”
“However, since RTI is a fundamental right, even if the government has not passed the act, anybody can go and apply for information and, on being denied, can move the high court, which in turn can ask the government to fulfill its constitutional obligations,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye. The RTI is already a fundamental right given under the constitution to every Bhutanese citizen.
He also said that the powers of judicial review will make sure that the basic framework of RTI and the constitution supporting it cannot be changed.
27 June, 2008 - The Right to Information Act is almost equivalent to a state secret in Bhutan, with even senior political figures expressing surprise that there existed such a draft act.
There is also no indication from the government on when they plan to introduce this vital act in parliament.
Already 59 countries have information acts in place, while 19 more are on their way. Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Nepal, North Korea and Iran do not have this act.
The truth for a majority of our Bhutanese brethren is that, while they may be quite open with one another, there is a awed and dumbstruck attitude when dealing with officialdom.
A sad sight is watching village folks walking meekly into government offices and dzongs, some of them carrying gifts for even basic functions. Inside, they are at the mercy of clerks or even ‘dashos’. All this arrogance is with good reason, especially in the villages, because these officials or even gups’ offices control all information on everything from birth to death certificates.
The absence of a Right to Information Act to make these characters sit up will consign 80 percent of our population, living on subsistence agriculture, to this never ending cycle of red tape.
Officialdom in Bhutan has too much power over the people in Bhutan and this power is deeper in areas where the information flow is less.
In the urban areas like Thimphu, information restriction has a more sophisticated and sinister role. Many of our ministries and government agencies are fortresses of information and laws unto themselves, keeping out anybody not in the circle of access. Many juniors are left wondering why they never hear from their seniors of trainings or foreign trips until it is too late. Many accountants are left wondering how an officer sitting in his office the whole week just made a travel claim of countless ngultrums. Honest businessmen scratch their heads when fronting companies do well and get away under the nose of authority. Common people shake their heads in disbelief when infrastructure projects turn into expensive and rundown white elephants to be repeated over and over again. Even some of the new private media, claiming to represent our times, are thinly veiled money making and flexible ventures, more worried about advertisement revenue and revealing pictures.
With these few examples of our ‘transparent and open system’ in vogue, we are on the verge of implementing our biggest plan size of around Nu 140 billion with poverty alleviation as the main aim.
Even at the local government level, the last time the government released some small funds, many gups all over the country got embroiled in corruption cases. For the sake of around 80 percent of our country, living on subsistence farming and 24 percent below the poverty line, we cannot afford to make any wrong moves this time around.
In this context, the stated aim of this government is to strengthen ACC, who themselves say that the lack of information flow is the main cause of corruption. So, instead of only strengthening the investigative mechanism, it will be far more useful to introduce RTI and make sure that the system has clauses designed to prevent corruption.
Many bureaucrats may not be happy with the RTI Act, stating that it could be used to harass officers or take up time. But experience in other countries has shown that RTI in the end has always led to overall cost and time savings, better civic life, more accountability and fairness in the system. This also means that those, who are not well organized, transparent, accountable or efficient, may fall victim to their own weakness. There will be the initial hiccups of transition but the short-term pains will be far outweighed by the long-term gains.
A supporting Act to RTI to protect people in government who expose corruption or injustice will go a long way in rooting out the bad apples.
One way to kill RTI will be to pass it with inspiring and sweet speeches but do nothing to promote or enforce it. Even the courts will be able to handle only so many RTI appeal cases at a time. The government must launch RTI awareness campaigns, especially in the villages, and ensure that all organisations comply with the demands of the Act.