Right to Information

Right to Information is generally known as freedom of information legislation, and described as open records or as in the United States, sunshine laws. In some countries, these are known as freedom of information acts. Available information indicate that such laws, under different names, exist in over 70 countries of the world. Sweden's Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 is generally acknowledged to be the oldest. In some developed democracies having a federal structure, individual states also have separate laws of same nature, in addition to the federal law.

The concept and practice of Right to Information (RTI) hinges on a legal process through which government information is required to be made available to the citizens. In many countries, there are constitutional guarantees for the right of access to information. However, these cannot be availed of in the absence of specific legislation. Most RTI cast the obligation to disclose information on the body from which information is requested, not the person asking for it. The person requesting the information does not have to explain the reasons for the request, and if no disclosure is made by the body from which the information is asked, it has to provide for valid reasons for not complying with the request for information.

Most SAARC countries have implemented the RTI. Pakistan introduced the law known as Freedom of Information Ordinance in 2002. India made the law known as the Indian Right to Information Act in 2005.'

The Indian law was inspired by several judgments of the Supreme Court as well as the existence of such laws in some of the states like Maharastra, Goa, Karnataka, Delhi etc. The Supreme Court has affirmed that right to information is a fundamental right as embodied in Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression also as right to life.

Bangladesh Constitution has similar provision relating to freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of speech and expression including freedom of press. These, however, are subject to reasonable restrictions as may be imposed by law.

RTI in Bangladesh was principally fuelled by persistent demands from the civil society and the media made from time to time since 2000. On 20 October 2008, the non-party caretaker government promulgated the Right to Information Ordinance 2008 (Ordinance 50 of 2008) in Bangladesh Gazette. The preamble to the Ordinance recognizes the fact that the fundamental rights relating to freedom of speech, thought and conscience are an integral part of right to information. It further considered it expedient to promulgate the Ordinance for empowerment of the people.

Consisting of 37 sections, the Act is divided into eight parts, each dealing with specific aspects. These included (i) definitions, (ii) right to information, preservation, disclosure and access. Access to as many as 20 categories of information such as state security, secret information received from foreign government, hampering security of the people, affecting privacy of any person, endangering life or bodies, security of any person, any secret information supplied to help a law enforcing body by any person etc, (iii) provision for appointment of designated officials in charge of access to information unit, (iv) establishment of Information Commission with one Principal Information Commissioner and two other Commissioners, their powers and functions, (v) establishing the fund of the Commission, its budget, financial independence, accounts and audit, (vi) officials and staff of Commission, (vii) manner of disposal of complaints and (viii) miscellaneous.

Since an ordinance requires parliamentary approval within 30 days of summoning the session of the Parliament, the said Ordinance was placed before the Jatiya Sangsad after it was summoned. On 25 February 2009, the parliamentary standing committee for the Ministry of Information examined the Ordinance and suggested some minor changes. The committee recommended the changes, such as dispensing with the requirement of prior approval of the commission in cases where exemptions from disclosure is permitted by the law, constitution of the commission within a period not exceeding 90 days, and inclusion in the commission as a member from persons qualified to be an editor or an eminent citizen having experience in media.

The bill after such modification was passed by the Jatiya Sangsad on 30 March 2009 and after assented by the hon'able President became the Right to Information Act 2009 (Act 20 of 2009). It repeals the earlier Ordinance but protects all actions taken under that Ordinance.

The Commission consists of one Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and two other Commissioners of which at least one shall be a woman. The CIC is the chief executive of the Commission.

The appointment of CIC and the Commissioners are made by the President on the recommendations of a selection committee headed by a judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and he is nominated by the Chief Justice of Bangladesh. There are four other members. These include cabinet secretary, two members of Jatiya Sangsad one each from the ruling party and from the opposition if the Sangsad is in session, and a journalist with qualifications of an editor or an eminent citizen having relationship with the media. The tenure of office is not exceeding five years or sixty seven years of age whichever is earlier. The CIC and other Commissioners are eligible for reappointment. A serving Commissioner is also eligible for appointment as CIC. These functionaries are to be appointed from amongst persons having adequate exposures in law, judiciary, journalism, education, science, technology, information, social work, management or public administration.'

For removal of these functionaries, the procedure is the same as in case of the removal of a judge of the Supreme Court. However, the President is competent, without following the above procedures, to remove CIC or any Commissioner on other grounds specified in the law.

The rank, status, salaries, other allowances and the privileges of the above functionaries are to be determined by the government.

The scope of work and powers of Commission are set forth in the law. It enjoys the powers to enforce on any person, call for information or submission of documents etc to discharge any of the functions entrusted to it by law.

The Commission will have its own fund consisting of grants from the government, and subject to the permission of the government, grants from any institution. It has some measure of financial authority to spend the amount specified in the relevant head of account in the budget. The expenditure is subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of Bangladesh. The issue of financial independence of the Commission cannot be interpreted as taking away the rights of CAG. The Commission provides to impose fine for violation of the relevant provisions of the law.

The law provides exception from the requirement of disclosure of information to eight intelligence agencies of the government. This exception is granted on grounds of national security. The long list of exempted areas also covers other state and non-state entities including judiciary. The specified areas on which there is no compulsion for disclosure are as many as twenty. However, the law requires also that the decision in disclosure if so taken by the cabinet or as the case may be by the council of Advisers of the non-party caretaker government, be published with reasons behind the decision so taken, and if it is also required for postponement of any disclosure, prior approval of the Commission is mandatory. [AMM Shawkat Ali]