Fresh bid to withhold information draws flakCalls grow for revoking decision of chief secretary-led panel that could curtail people’s right to information.
Chief Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi-led committee’s decision to classify 87 types of information to be kept secret for up to three decades has invited criticism from various sections of society.
After all the major stakeholders including the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) and political leaders opposed the decision, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal called a meeting of the stakeholders on Monday to discuss the issue.
The committee formed for the classification of information as per the Right to Information Act 2007 has handed over the details of its decision to the National Information Commission.
“We are studying the list of classified information after getting it around two weeks ago,” Chief Information Commissioner Mahendra Man Gurung said. “We will come up with our conclusions soon.”
Section 27(1) of the RTI Act on the provision regarding the classification of information states that for the protection of the information related to Sub-section (3) of Section 3, held in a public body, there shall be a committee led by the chief secretary of Government of Nepal to classify the information at the policy level.
Section 27(2) says the Committee has to inform the National Information Commission by determining the number of years the information should be kept confidential and the method for the protection of information.
But the National Information Commission also has the authority to brush aside the chief secretary-led committee’s decision if any citizen files a review petition at the commission.
Section 27(3) states that a person who is not satisfied with the classification made by the committee pursuant to Sub-section (2) may file a review petition with the commission to make the information public.
When such a review petition is filed, if the commission, as per Section 27(4), finds that any information need not be kept confidential in the course of review of the petition pursuant to Sub-section (3), can issue an order to make such information public.
“Since we have the authority to delist the confidential information once people come up with a review petition, we will do the needful,” Gurung told the Post. “But, since the committee’s decision guides classified information, the issue is very sensitive.”
The government’s classification of 80 types of information was scrapped by the Supreme Court a decade ago. Questioning the classification process, the court had ordered the classification be done as per the spirit of the constitution.
As soon as the issue came to the fore through some stakeholders, political leaders and major stakeholders started to oppose the government’s move and demanded the decision be withdrawn immediately.
Issuing a statement on Sunday, FNJ general secretary Roshan Puri said the federation’s attention was drawn to the decision to enlist 87 types of information as confidential in such a way as to make the Right to Information Act 2007 ineffective.
“The decision of the chief secretary-led information classification committee in the transitional phase of government formation without informing experts and stakeholders would make the Right to Information Act 2007 and the fundamental right to information enshrined by the constitution ineffective,” read the statement. “The federation demands the authority concerned to revoke the decision immediately.”
Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala made the same demand. “The right to information guaranteed by the constitution is essential to strengthen democracy, and to empower citizens and to ensure good governance. I oppose the government’s decision to weaken this right and the related law to keep 87 policy issues confidential,” Koirala tweeted on Sunday. “I demand the government immediately withdraw this decision.”
As per section 27(5) of the law, the information classified may be kept confidential for a maximum period of 30 years, according to the nature of the information but the committee should review every ten years whether any information deemed confidential can be declassified.
According to his Secretariat, Prime Minister Dahal will discuss the issue with stakeholders including the journalists’ federation, the National Information Commission and the National Human Rights Commission at 1pm on Monday.
Committee members and even the experts involved have not been revealed yet.
Taranath Dahal, executive chairman of Freedom Forum, a civil liberty group that advocates free speech, said this time, the committee had worryingly spoken of information as a whole without specifying particular information or document when discussing its new classification criteria.
“The government has been complaining about the overflow of misinformation and disinformation but it is trying to block access to facts and truthful information, which is a matter of serious concern,” Dahal told the Post. “If this decision is not revoked at the earliest, the essence of the Right to Information Act 2007 will not survive.”
However, Dahal said the NIC can declare that it cannot implement the committee's decision after reviewing the list, or the Cabinet can ask the chief secretary-led committee to withdraw it.
Chief Secretary Bairagi was not immediately available for comment.