Mahendra Man Gurung
In democracy, right to information is the key to empowering citizens and improving governance system. It enhances transparency and accountability of public bodies, reduces corruption, boosts the delivery of goods and services and increases the people’s participation in the decision-making process and trust in public institutions. It also enables all citizens to know how the decisions that affect them are made, how public funds are used and according to which criteria institutions act.
Right to information basically relies on three principles. The first is the principle of maximum disclosure which establishes a presumption that all information held by public bodies should be subject to disclosure. However, this principle works in a very limited situation. The second is the principle of proactive disclosure. As per this, the public bodies provide information to the people prior to the request. The third is the principle of public interest overriding. When there is a compelling public interest in disclosure that clearly outweighs the purpose of the applicable exemption, the public institutions are supposed to disclose information.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise the importance of transparent institutions (Target 16.6) and require States to adopt access to information laws (indicator 16.10.2) as part of actions to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions. The Swedish Freedom of the Printing Press Act enacted in 1766 was the world's first information law. Two centuries later, Finland framed similar law. It is only in the 1990s, both the countries recognised access to information as the right of citizens in their constitutions. To date, 127 countries have adopted laws that ensure the people’s right to information.
Nepal is the first country in South Asia to recognise the Right to Information (RTI) as a fundamental right of the people. Article 16 of the Constitution of Nepal 1990 had stipulated RTI as the fundamental right. The Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2063 (2007) made the RTI as its integral part. Accordingly, an RTI Act was enacted to ensure the people’s access to information about the affairs of the state. Article 27 of the constitution promulgated in 2072 (2015) has kept the provision of RTI intact.
The world has witnessed considerable changes with the fast development of internet and social networking sites. Nowadays, information flows rapidly and easily, enabling the people to form their views and perceptions. This has created greater challenge for the public bodies to respond quickly and transparently to the demands and concerns raised by members of public. Young generation is more cautious and swift in making decisions. Nepal is also experiencing such changes as the people have become more conscious of their democratic rights and duties. This requires that the government should be proactive and transparent in disclosing information about the issues having direct bearing on the life of people.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of RTI has further increased. With extended lockdown and other restrictive measures, people’s mobility came to a halt. Businesses, industries and education activity were shut down, forcing many people out of their jobs. Mental, social and economic problems have put people's life at stake. Decreased revenues have strained the entire economy of the country. In this unprecedented crisis, the people need to know what is happening, what they have to do and how they can be safe and healthy. They have a right to know how the government working to save their life. The people should be able to ask questions and get the answers as easily as possible. There can be delay in responding to the public queries due to the crisis but state authorities have an obligation to demonstrate greater amount of transparency to the wellbeing of the ordinary people.
To ensure that the people have unhindered access to information about the pandemic, National Information Commission (NIC) has issued a number of instructions, asking the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) and other public bodies at federal, state and local levels to inform the public about their expenditure and other activities related to the containment of the coronavirus. The MoHP has been conducting virtual briefings on the number of infections, recoveries and death toll from the virus on daily basis. It has also created Viber group to share the virus-related data, established a call centre, and launched a mobile app and dedicated web page. Some offices at state and local levels have been publishing their own data and disclosing expenditure related to pandemic, quarantines, isolation centres and relief package to the people hit by the pandemic.
The role of the local bodies in the crisis management was quite exemplary. Some of them also suffered from mismanagement due to lack of experience and skilled human resources. Proactive disclosures made by a number of public bodies are not enough. The Supreme Court has also asked the government to disclose the details of expenditure on the management of the pandemic. However, the government is yet to make detail disclosures on it. It needs to inform people in local language, which is essential to make sure that nobody is left behind. Some local community radio and media are doing the job to some extent.
Recently, the NIC has asked the concerned bodies to inform the public about the standards of sanitisers and face masks which will be in the use until the anti-virus vaccines are available. It has called for the effective monitoring of the sale of the protective items so that the people get quality medical products and feel secure. We must admire and encourage all the frontline healthcare workers, security personnel, civil servants and media persons who have been working tirelessly to save our life.
Now that most of the restrictions on the public movement, transport and businesses have been lifted, we should stay safe and follow the health instructions issued by the authorities. There are valid reasons to lift the restrictions. It is imperative for the government to balance between containing the pandemic and reviving the economy. It is time for all to be self-disciplined and fulfill the duties towards the state. The government has the responsibility to enforce measures to protect the lives of people. It should provide proper information in a proper manner. The execution of RTI Act in the right time and with proper medium can save the people from falling prey to misinformation and rumours about the coronavirus. Eventually, we can win the fight against the pandemic and survive it.
(Gurung is the Chief Commissioner at the National Information Commission)