The right to knowEffective implementation of the RTI Act is essential to ensure transparency and accountability in Nepal.
Mahendra Man Gurung
In a democratic system, access to information becomes an essential part of governance. If people do not know what is happening in their name and if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that country. It is the most vulnerable and marginalised communities that suffer the most due to limited access to information.
Access to information enhances the transparency and accountability of public bodies. It helps improve the delivery of services due to awareness, improve good governance, empower the citizens to seek the information, increase the participation of citizens, reduce the gap between public bodies and citizens, enhance the trust of public bodies, and reduce opportunities for corruption.
Access to information relies on three fundamental principles. The first, the principle of maximum disclosure, establishes a presumption that all information held by public bodies should be subject to disclosure and that this presumption may be overcome only in limited circumstances. The second is the principle of proactive disclosure, which mandates public bodies to make the information available before the request. The third is the principle of public interest overriding, which requires that a compelling public interest in disclosure outweighs the purpose of the applicable exemption.
The resolution to proclaim September 28 as International Day for Universal Access to Information was adopted by the 74th General Assembly of the United Nations on October 15 2019. Before that, the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO), in its 57th General Conference, adopted the resolution to proclaim September 28 as International Day for Universal Access to Information on November 17 2015. Since then, we have been celebrating the day by organising several programs to remember and make it happen for the people.
It is also to be noted that the importance of access to information in anti-corruption efforts is recognised in the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and runs through its text, in which Nepal is a signatory. Nepal has even formulated a national action plan for its effective implementation to root out the social evil of corruption.
The world's first access to information law was the Swedish Freedom of the Printing Press Act in 1766. It took nearly two centuries before the subsequent law was adopted in Finland in 1951. In the 1990s, Sweden and Finland constitutionally recognised access to information as a right. To date, 127 countries have adopted access to information laws. Nepal is the first country in South Asia to constitutionally recognise (1990) right to information as a fundamental right. The interim constitution extended the provision and provided in article 27 as a fundamental right of the citizen. A separate RTI act has been enacted to implement RTI in Nepal effectively. The constitution of Nepal promulgated in 2015 has continued the same provision.
For effective implementation of the constitutional right and provisions of the legislation, the National Information Commission (NIC) was established in 2008. It protects, promotes and executes the RTI of Nepali citizens in Nepal. The NIC has the mandate to order any public office to provide information and is also empowered to fine any official who did not follow the mandate. No other such law in the country has set up a mechanism that can make officials pay a fine from their pocket for not doing their duty at the initiative and pursuit of any ordinary citizen.
In the last 14 years, RTI in Nepal has gone through several achievements, activities, practices and cases. Most of the public bodies now have information officers. Many public bodies are publishing proactive disclosures periodically. Most of the policymakers are aware of the provision of RTI legislation. The number of requests for information is gradually increasing every year. However, the information seekers are still mostly related to the media and RTI activists, which means still ordinary citizens are not aware of their right to seek the information.
RTI scholar Madhu Sudan Neupane has pointed out that the main weakness of the Nepali democratic system concerning RTI is that government agencies and the authorities are not ready to provide pertinent, accurate and balanced information to the public and civil society. The number of information seekers under RTI has been complaining to the NIC that there is a growing trend in public bodies, i.e. unhelpful attitude, unfavourable environment, reluctance to impart information, creation of hurdles even to register the RTI application.
Additionally, a culture of secrecy within public bodies can result in inadequate response to RTI requests. Even strong laws can be ineffective if the officials providing information are supporting a culture of secrecy. Complicated bureaucracy can put information out of reach for citizens, who are often unaware that they can even request it. SDG indicator 16.10.2 becomes more of a wish list than an achievement for the country, government, and citizens in such a situation.
Political leadership has shown its commitment to the fundamental rights of the ordinary citizen by incorporating several fundamental rights, including the right to information in the constitution. Now is the time to show its commitment to implement it effectively. This can be measured by the level of resources provided and willingness to accept the civil partnership, enacting RTI friendly legislation and punish the officials if found neglecting the rights of the ordinary citizen to ask and get the information.
With the rapid development in information technology, storing information, categorising, retrieving is becoming much easier. The focus of record-keeping should be RTI friendly, easier to find and retrieve. Public bodies should be proactive in using information technology.
We are connected globally. Nepal is a member of most of the international agencies and is committed to their frameworks. We have invited direct foreign investment. Non-resident Nepalis are also increasing their investment. Also, tourism remains one of the most prioritised sectors of our economy. There is thus a need to amend the constitution to provide the right to seek information to an individual instead of the citizen.
The objective of the Right to Information Act is that the public bodies are to be open, transparent and accountable towards citizens by continuously disclosing information even if the citizens do not seek any information. There is a clear provision for proactive disclosure of information at every three months' intervals; however, there are still a number of public bodies which have not been able to comply with this provision. Adherence to the legal obligation is the key.It is essential to educate the citizens about the RTI and encourage citizen involvement. The awareness program must primarily target the vulnerable categories of citizens such as; women, farmers, rural families and disadvantaged groups. For this purpose, RTI awareness and education need to be aggressively pursued using the appropriate medium of communication and adequate budget allocated for this initiative.