(By Krishna Sapkota)
Kathmandu, Aug. 19: Openness about the functioning and performance of the government is the foundation of any democratic society. It is also widely accepted that citizens’ input and engagement in decision-making and development process of the country is key to good governance.
Acknowledging that ensuring access to information plays vital role in creating civic space and opportunities for the public good, Nepal adopted the Right to Information Act in July 2007 that came into effect on 20 August the same year. The implementation of the RTI has thus spanned eight important years that saw a spate of landmark achievements despite some shortcomings and lacunas.
The RTI Act aims to make the functions of the State open and transparent in accordance with the democratic system, to make state institutions responsible and accountable to Nepal’s citizens and to facilitate the access of citizens to the information held by public bodies. It envisages active citizenship often being a vital link between transparency and accountability.
“Enabled with legislative, legal and institutional set-ups during the period, RTI in Nepal has witnessed steady realization of its essence and emergence as citizenry tool to assert their rights, opportunities and justice”, said Taranath Dahal, one of the members of the seven-member taskforce that drafted the RTI Bill of Nepal in 2007. He added that the RTI is piercing into the vicious circle of corruption, irregularities and mismanagement and has already tasted some discernible successes in different fronts.
The growing bottom-up civic campaigns for information requests, networking and capacity building of CSOs, media, government officials at central agencies and municipalities, political wings, activists and mass sensitization on RTI among others have enabled environment for better practice of RTI in the country.
Much of the achievements made during these eight years however have been on developing infrastructure for RTI implementation including establishment of the National Information Commission and appointment of office bearers for two terms. Formulation of RTI regulation and two amendments, setup of central coordination unit at the Prime Minister’s Office and implementation monitoring unit at Ministry of Information and Communications, appointment of Information Officers, knowledge construction and sharing are other notable developments made during the period.
“The achievements so far made during the formative period are exciting since broader stakeholders including government, citizens, CSOs and advocates from across the country are working from their edge to create a momentum of RTI’, said RTI expert Dr Ram Krishna Timilsina. “It is worth-noting that the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) has introduced RTI in the curriculum of Mass Communication at secondary level education”, he further said, adding this achievement reflects a great recognition of RTI on part of the State.
However, anti-corruption activist Sharada Bhusal noted that there is still a discouraging situation for citizens to seek and receive critical information related to misappropriation and irregularities of public money. “Demanding information from public agencies sometimes is still a life-threatening job. It has not yet become the weapon of commoners due to lack of public awareness, resistance from public agencies and arrangement of safety nets”, added Bhusal, who has been in RTI campaign for the past five years.
No doubt, there are several rooms for improvement to make RTI a surest public tool for advancing good governance in public agencies. “Clause 7(1) of the RTI Act-2007 that requires specifying ‘reason’ in the RTI application for demanding information should be removed as it increases fear among information seekers constraining wider scope of RTI,” adds RTI Campaigner Dahal.
He further suggests that the overriding effect of the RTI laws should be clearly established to ease access to information, otherwise it may not realize its goal of contributing to the making of open and transparent state and empowering citizens.
Similarly, Dr Timilsina observes that the RTI has to be decentralized to the citizens at grassroots level and linked it to improve their livelihood opportunities. “The National Planning Commission should make RTI an integral component of its plans, policies and programmes as a benchmark of good governance”, he said.
He also noted the need of introducing the Privacy Act, National Security Act, Public Records Act and Open Data and Data Protection Act to prepare robust infrastructure and facilitate the smooth implementation of RTI.
As the country is embarking on to frame the main law of the land, the RTI provision specified in its draft should replace ‘citizen’ with ‘people’ and add ‘impart’ after the phrase ‘right to seek and receive’. With this, the amended Article 32 of the draft should read, “Every people shall have the right to seek, receive and impart information on any matters of concern to his or her or to the public concern” to make it compatible to international standards as well as to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Nepal is a state party.
Bearing in mind the status of the implementation of the RTI for eight years, the constitution drafters should take stock of the challenges and opportunities and ensure amendment to the provisions to make it more progressive in the federal setup envisaged by the new statute.