Pandemic and lockdown provide veil for government to withhold informationNepal’s political parties advocate transparency when in the opposition but ignore it while in government, observers say.
More than two months after the government imposed a lockdown in an attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19, officials have announced that around Rs 10 billion has been spent on combating the pandemic.
The federal government is said to have spent Rs 6.03 billion while the provincial and local governments spent Rs 1.08 billion and Rs 2.76 billion, respectively. Narayan Prasad Bidari, a secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, shared that Rs 9.87 billion has been spent so far, without giving a breakdown of the expenditure.
Amid reports that quarantine facilities have not been managed properly, people in isolation centres have not got proper care and enough tests are not being carried out, the government’s announcement of the expenses running into billions has surprised many.
There was a demand for making the expenditures public from different quarters, mainly from those who had contributed to the government’s Coronavirus Control and Treatment Fund, which received Rs 2.31 billion as of Tuesday. The expenditure total was made public on the 72nd day of the lockdown.
Information rights activists say the pandemic and the never-ending lockdown have provided a shield for the government, which has chosen not to make much information public since it came to power.
Against the years-long practice, the KP Sharma Oli government stopped sharing Cabinet decisions the same day since November 11, 2018. It had been holding press meets on Thursdays but that too has stopped since mid-May.
Though government spokesperson Yubraj Khatiwada, the finance minister who is also in charge of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, is making the decisions public through the state-owned Nepal Television, there is no interaction with journalists.
“We stopped the press meet after an increasing threat of Covid-19. These days the government’s spokesperson is making public major decisions through Nepal Television,” Rishiram Tiwari, spokesperson for the communication ministry, told the Post.
Advocate Tanka Aryal, a right to information campaigner, said the government is effectively imparting the information it is comfortable with, like the daily updates on the number of Covid-19 infections and the tests the Ministry of Health and Population has performed. However, the government is surprisingly silent when it comes to disclosing information about the expenditure.
“Why can't the Finance Ministry hold press meets and give details about the expenditure once a week?” Aryal questioned. “The government is giving what it wants without caring for what people want to know.”
The daily press briefings by Dr Bikash Devkota, spokesperson for the Health Ministry, also don’t reveal how many test kits have been used up and what remains in stock. Amid reports that the 20 Polymerase Chain Reaction testing labs currently in operation are overwhelmed with samples, Devkota is silent on the government’s further plan.
Aryal said the local and provincial governments are no better. He finds incidents where local governments have not allowed journalists to report about the meagre relief they were providing to the locals.
The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issuing a statement on Wednesday, said the Asia Pacific countries including Nepal were targeting the media against the principle of freedom of expression. Cases of journalists facing obstruction from the authorities in accessing information and disseminating it are increasing in Nepal, the statement said. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, said there was no truth in the statement.
Right to information activists say the government must be even more transparent at a time of crisis because everyone relies on the government to handle the emergency. On the contrary, the government is becoming more and more rigid in disseminating information, which is only adding to public frustration.
Observers say that Nepal’s political parties advocate transparency when in the opposition but forget it when they are in government. The incumbent government has tried to conceal information more.
“The pandemic and the lockdown have provided an excuse for the Oli administration to keep the people in the dark,” Tara Nath Dahal, chief executive at Freedom Forum, a non-government organisation that advocates the right to information, told the Post. “This also has come as a boon to hide its incompetencies.”