The coronavirus pandemic has created a crisis like never before. People are getting infected in the millions; economies are taking a brutal hit and governments are struggling to contain the spread of the virus without damaging the livelihoods of their citizens. But what this contagion has also shown is the value of the right to information. People need to be informed about the state of the outbreak in their countries and localities. They need to be informed about what measures they can take to protect themselves from the virus and they need to be informed about where they can get essential services in case they get infected.
Right to information has become a matter of life and death now, which is why we can be thankful that it is ensured in Nepal. However, it did not take a pandemic for us to realise that people need to get information about matters that concern them and the larger public. Our constitution of 1990 had guaranteed the people the right to seek and obtain information of public importance. This provision was continued in the interim constitution of 2006, based on which, a Right to Information Act (RTI) was drafted and came into force in 2007 and the National Information Commission was formed in 2008.
The purpose of RTI in the Nepali context is to make the state and its agencies transparent, responsible and accountable. It makes free flow of information the norm and secrecy the exemption, only allowed in cases when disclosure of the information would harm national security, investigation and prosecution of crimes, economic and other interests, intellectual property and professional secrets, harmonious relations among communities, individual privacy, security, life, property or health of a person.
As Nepali citizens, we all have the right to demand information from all public agencies (ministries and subordinate bodies, constitutional bodies, organisations that perform public services, government-funded or controlled agencies, political parties and non-governmental organisations).
But even when no one files an application asking to get certain information, the Right to Information Act requires the aforementioned public agencies to proactively release 20 different types of information which include the information defined as “essential” about each body, its functions, services, decision-making processes, details about the Chief and Information Officer and financial information about the body. This information must mandatorily be updated every three months. Furthermore, all the public bodies must also appoint an information officer to be responsible for dealing with requests made by the public for specific information. The officer should, by law, facilitate people’s access to information.
Information should be provided within 15 days of the request, but when someone’s life is in danger, then it should be provided within 24 hours. There are no rules on extensions. However, here, we have a huge gap. The information officers must work on complete applications of information but they are not required to provide any assistance to those who do not know how to file an information request or those filing an incomplete request. Not everyone comes from the same background or has the same level of competency with language but they may still need information. Yet, our public offices do not take this into account and extend no assistance to people needing it for obtaining information.
Also, if the body does not possess the information being requested, it only notifies the individual requesting that it does not have it. What it should instead be doing is passing on the request to the body that has. These are two of the biggest gaps in our information law that is otherwise satisfactory. Principally, information should be provided free of cost but our law allows agencies to charge the amount but limits it to the actual cost of providing information.