The efficacy of Right to Information Act 2009 in Bangladesh

Nishat Tabassum | 07 June 2023
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The efficacy of a policy is dependent on its implementation, regardless of how well-designed it is in written form. The adoption of the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2009 in Bangladesh was the culmination of an extended process. In 1983, with the aim of fortifying the democratic system, the Press Council advocated to the government for the enactment of a law guaranteeing the right to information of the general public. In 2003, the Law Commission presented the government with a framework proposal for the RTI Act. At the time, civil society, print and electronic media, journalists, legislators, educators, and many others elevated their voices and created a platform in support of the RTI Act. As a result of this campaign, the RTI Ordinance was promulgated on October 20, 2008, and sent to Parliament for approval. The Right to Information Act, 2009, was enacted during the first session of the ninth Parliament and published in the Bangladesh Gazette on April 6, 2009.

One of the purposes of the RTI Act is to empower citizens. Access to information from public, autonomous, and statutory organisations, as well as private organisations that operate on government or foreign funding, can lead to a sense of empowerment for individuals. This is due to the fact that information has the ability to empower people. With access to information, individuals can engage more actively in governance. If this act is effectively executed, it is indisputable that it has the potential to diminish corruption, ensure transparency, and promote accountability, thereby promoting good governance. The RTI Act presently enables economically disadvantaged women residing in rural areas to access information pertaining to government welfare schemes such as the Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) programme, Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) cards, and maternity health vouchers. Currently, farmers and fishermen are actively seeking and obtaining knowledge that can enhance their quality of life and livelihoods. Environmentalists are utilising the RTI  Act to augment accountability within the realm of environmental governance. Individuals affected by natural disasters are being provided with information pertaining to assistance and restoration efforts. Individuals who are from marginalised and disadvantaged communities, such as the dalits, are currently gaining access to information that is making them aware of their rights.

Each coin has two facets. On the one hand, farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, impoverished women living in rural areas, and members of marginalized communities such as dalits benefit from the RTI Act. On the other hand, the number of people of all backgrounds who do not benefit from the RTI Act is enormous. The original intent of this legislation has not been realised until now.Although the act was initially introduced in 2009, it is regrettable that, as of 2023, there remains a notable deficiency in public knowledge and understanding of the act. The article entitled ‘Right to Information Act 2009’ to Tackle Corruption in Bangladesh: Citizen’s Perception published in the International Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Research in 2022, reveals that women and rural populations exhibit the lowest levels of awareness regarding this act. The Management and Resources Development Initiative (MRDI), a development organisation, conducted a survey in 2020 named Information to Empower Youth, which involved 706 youth. The findings of the survey revealed that a considerable proportion of the youth population, approximately 78%, exhibits a lack of awareness regarding the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Notwithstanding the notion that information is perceived to provide authority to individuals and foster accountability, this particular group still exhibits a significant lack of awareness regarding the legislation.In our society, there is a prevalent practise of concealing information. As per the findings of the "Right to Information Survey 2019," carried out by the Manusher Jonno Foundation and commissioned by the World Bank, a majority of applicants (59 percent) who filed requests under the Right to Information Act did not receive any response from the concerned authorities.The World Bank conducted a Right to Information Survey in 2019, wherein it was discovered that journalists are the primary requesters of information from public and private authorities for investigative purposes. Nonetheless, individuals are not provided with information due to the provisions of Section 7 of the RTI Act. This section stipulates that authorities are prohibited from disclosing information that could potentially impact state security, intellectual property rights, individual or institutional safety, international relations, and other related matters. Consequently, it has been observed that journalists encounter difficulties in carrying out thorough inquiries pertaining to corrupt practises. All individuals in Bangladesh possess the entitlement to request and obtain information from both public and private entities, with the exclusion of information pertaining to matters of national security. Section 7 of the Right to Information Act encompasses 20 distinct scenarios in which members of the public are restricted from obtaining access to information.

The establishment of the Information Commission took place on July 1st, 2009. The Information Commission is comprised of three members, namely a Chief Information Commissioner and two Information Commissioners. Historically, it has been observed that individuals who have previously served as public servants have been appointed as Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners. They exhibit a lack of enthusiasm for providing information to the general public. According to an article published by Tahseen Lubaba in The Daily Star in 2020, there exists an inclination among public servants to maintain a culture of secrecy, which can impede the establishment of a climate that is favorable to the interests of citizens. The 2020 Survey Report, "Information to Empower Youth," conducted across 8 districts in Bangladesh by the Management and Resources Development Initiative (MRDI), revealed that the officials assigned by organisations exhibit a disinclination to provide information to the public who request it. It has been observed that the public may encounter threats when attempting to obtain information. The application procedure for requesting information is still incomprehensible to the public.In conclusion, it can be asserted that the 2009 legislation aimed at promoting good governance by ensuring transparency and accountability, as well as curbing corruption, has yet to fully achieve its intended objectives. The obstacles to the successful implementation of the RTI Act include inadequate public awareness, an aptitude for concealing information, the provisions of Section 7 of the act, and the complex process of requesting information. It is imperative that appropriate measures be taken for the proper implementation of the RTI Act of 2009. It is imperative that appropriate measures be taken for the proper implementation of the RTI Act. 

Firstly, to increase awareness of this significant initiative, campaign programmes should be organised in both rural and urban areas. The entire population, regardless of age, gender, or region, can be made aware of the act through the use of television and billboard advertisements, newspaper articles, social media, Union Digital Centres, and Ward Shava, among other tools.

Secondly, necessary initiatives should be undertaken so that journalists can have access to information that is necessary for their investigative reporting.

Thirdly, It is imperative for officials to alter their approach to maintaining the confidentiality of information.

Nishat Tabassum, Research Intern, Centre for Governance Studies. 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.