‘For RTI to be effective, there has to be political will’

Muhammad Zamir, the newly-appointed Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commission Bangladesh talks to Saad Hammadi about how the Commission can facilitate people’s right to information

The Right to Information Act is one of the most important instruments empowering those to who power should belong in democracy. Without a political will or commitment to divulge public information, how effective is RTI likely to be?

The entire philosophy pertaining to having right to information originates from the idea that power originates from the people and it is the people’s right to know and have access to information. We have to organise ourselves in a manner where necessary branches of government act as facilitator of good governance. You need transparency for that. It is only possible through providing information and access to such information without obstruction.

In order for the process to be effective, there has to be political will. However, according to the RTI Act, there are certain references as to where and how information cannot be provided. In the case of

Bangladesh, the commission will try and facilitate the dissemination of required information, those which are not covered under article 7.

In many government institutions we have seen some set explanations and attitudes when asked about certain information. Either the person responsible is in a meeting or at lunvh or cannot reveal the information due to the Official Secrets Act. Is there anyway the RTI Act obliges the authorities to respond to public queries?

What we are trying to do is to create a digitalised system whereby, the access to information cannot be affected by individual means. Information will be available on the internet and through web pages, with the facility for a person to approach a designated official, in any office, government or non-government, and seek information to any query. That office would be duty-bound to provide such information as soon as possible. If they refuse they must have a very good reason. Any refusal should have necessary reason provided to the Information Commission and the person who can apply to the commission.

On many occasions people are moved from one desk to another while seeking government document or service, until they finally resort to illegal or corrupt channels. How does the RTI commission aim at improving the situation?

The Information commission will obviously assist the process of trying to obtain necessary details to any question. For this purpose, an effort is being made to create a matrix whereby all government officers, non-government officers, directorates, non government organisations, all such bodies will be designating one of their officials as an information support officer.

In the last two or three weeks we have already accumulated more than 4,000 names of officials all over Bangladesh in different institutions. Eventually it may grow to about 100,000. Anyone can then access through digital means without having to go to the office. If the officer does not provide information on any pretext within a time limit, there will be names of supervisors to whom individuals can write. The supervisor also has a time limit and if he does not give information within the time limit, there will be names of supervisors to whom individuals can write. The supervisor also has a time limit and if he does not give information within the time limit, the individual can complain or appeal to the commission. The commission can ask the supervisor and explain.

To what extent does the Information Commission possess the authority to take action against violation of the RTI act?

There is what is called the concept of appeal. The person who has not received the necessary information despite his best effort can then approach the commission and request it through an appeal that the office which has not helped him should be asked to provide the information. The commission will direct the office to appear before it and provide the causes for which information has not been provided.

There has been a concern with the capacity of the RTI commission since its beginning. Does the commission have adequate manpower and logistics to fulfil its responsibilities?

We have just started. The terms of engagement have been approved. We will eventually have sufficient number of people for the functioning of the organisation. But I believe we need to have more people for the functioning of the organisation. But I believe we need to have more people who are computer literate and teach savvy so that if information is sought from the web page, they should be able to interact with the persons concerned.

There have been several clauses that in the past allowed the government staffs to deny any access to information. How much of these laws have supremacy over the present RTI Act?

This is an institution which is above politics and meant to assist governance. But the rules of engagement are very strict. Those acts which are relevant for national security have to be acknowledged.

The Right to Information Act as some fear can be misused by holding back information over a longer period of time which otherwise could have been delivered instantly.

The purpose of RTI is to break down the barrier and make everything more transparent. In this context an individual may not need more than basic information. If it requires specific information which requires research it will take time. The information may need to be collected from sister institutions.

During the prime minister’s last visit to India, some agreements were signed which have not been placed in the parliament. As representatives of the people, the government is supposed divulge to the people whatever arrangements have been done under their name. Will the commission facilitate access to such information?

The parliament is the venue for any discussion on the basis of information given. In this case particularly, the parliamentary members take the oath of secrecy. The parliament can discuss and deliberate upon matters affecting international relations. If negotiations are underway, pertaining to an agreement with a foreign country, no information can then be provided while such negotiation is taking place. However, eventually it will be available but one must remember international negotiation is not a commercial deal. No one can impose timeframe for international negotiations.

The interview was first published in NEW AGE Xtra on April 23, 2010



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