Acting late

Four years ago the prime minister pledged to enact a right to information law. The prime minister didn’t give a definite time frame, but he promised that it would be done “soon”.

It’s already been four years since the government made that promise. And we are still waiting for them to keep their word. Now, however, finally, there seems to be some movement: the Department of Media and Information has conducted an RTI awareness workshop, and the Ministry of Information and Communication has distributed a draft RTI Bill for public comments and feedback.

But all this is for nothing. The government has been inactive for so long that whatever they do now will be too little, too late. Parliament has only one session left. And we need at least two sessions to pass a law. So, in spite of any assurances from the government, and any last minute flurry of activity, we might as well accept that the government will not fulfill their promise to give us an RTI Act.

We, the people, will not have an RTI Act during this government’s term in office. But what we have is the Constitution. And Article 7 Section 3 of the Constitution declares that “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. So in the absence of a law regulating the right to information, we, the people, can continue to enjoy unqualified and unconditional right to information as an important fundamental right.

Right to information

Article 7 of the Constitution is about our fundamental rights.

Section 3 of that important article declares that “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. By this provision, any citizen has the right – a fundamental right – to ask the government for any information. And the government must provide that information, whatever it may be. That is because the fundamental right of the citizen to government information, as granted by the Constitution, is unqualified. And it is unconditional. “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information” – that’s all the Constitution says, simple and straightforward.

But what if a citizen applies for information and the government refuses to provide it? The Bhutanese, a newspaper, was denied some information that they had requested. The newspaper, or whoever filed the right to information application, was denied the right to information, a fundamental right.

Now what?

The journalist who filed the right to information application, and whose fundamental right was violated could take the matter to the courts in accordance with Article 7 Section 23 of the Constitution which states that, “All persons in Bhutan shall have the right to initiate appropriate proceedings in the Supreme Court or High Court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Article, subject to section 22 of this Article and procedures prescribed by law.”

That means that that journalist could seek judicial intervention to demand the information that was requested. In other words, the judiciary must ensure that that journalist’s fundamental right is not violated, and so must force the government to provide whatever information was requested.

But what about Section 22 of Article 7? What does that section say? It says that:

“Notwithstanding the rights conferred by this Constitution, nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from subjecting reasonable restrictions by law, when it concerns:

(a)     The interests of the sovereignty, security, unity and integrity of Bhutan;
(b)     The interests of peace, stability and well-being of the nation;
(c)     The interests of friendly relations with foreign States;
(d)     Incitement to an offense on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion or region;
(e)     The disclosure of information received in regard to the affairs of the State or in discharge of official duties; or
(f)     The rights and freedom of others”

The Constitution allows the State to subject certain restrictions, within reason, on our fundamental rights. So if the information that that journalist had requested is a state secret, or risks undermining some national interest, that journalist cannot demand that information as a fundamental right. But such restrictions on our fundamental rights can only be made and applied “by law”. And in the case of our fundamental right to information, that law would be the right to information act.

But we don’t have a right to information act. Therefore, that journalist must be provided with whatever information was requested, even if that information is, in the unlikely event, against the national interest.

The prime minister had promised a right to information act. He’s done a U-turn now. He’s now said that a right to information act is not needed at the moment. He should reconsider.

The Constitution guarantees us with the right to information. So we, the citizens at large, and the media in particular, do not need any further legislation to enjoy that fundamental right.

In fact, it is the government that needs a right to information act. The act would protect the government. The act would identify and define the nature and scope of important and sensitive information that cannot be made public in the broader interests of the nation. And the act would permit the government to apply legal restrictions to safeguard and protect such information.

A RTI act is necessary and important. And the prime minister should work on it with a sense of urgency. Otherwise he should support Hon Sangay Khandu’s bold initiative to introduce a right to information bill as a private bill in the next session of the Parliament.

 

Secret agents

Friend or foe?

WikiLeaks: 38 of you said that WikiLeaks promotes transparency and accountability in government; 24 think that it threatens international relations and global security; and 6 readers either had made up their minds or didn’t know about WikiLeaks.

Thank you for taking the poll.

It’s important to think about WikiLeaks. And what the whistle-blowing phenomenon means for Bhutan. Drukpa, a monthly newsmagazine, asked me for my views and published them in their latest issue. My commentary in Drukpa follows:

Opinion over WikiLeaks is sharply divided. The whistle-blowing website has angered many governments. They claim that the indiscriminate release of secret information threatens international relations and global security. And they warn that it endangers the lives of innocent people. So they have aggressively sought to discredit WikiLeaks and its upstart founder, Julian Assange.

But others including journalists, activists and technologists, claim that WikiLeaks makes governments and corporations more transparent and accountable. They herald the organization as a champion of democracy and good government. And anonymous supporters of WikiLeaks have retaliated by attacking the websites of several agencies who have appeared to suppress the organization. [Continue Reading…]