When I was a new reporter, way back in 2008, one of the first articles I remember working on was the Right to Information Act in Bhutan. I interviewed the Chief Justice, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, who was involved with drafting the Bill then. India had had this huge heroic RTI success, and having read their Act, and our Constitution, I had become a strong believer in the merits of having this Act in place, and my eagerness to see RTI become law in this country must have been apparent- because the Honourable Chief Justice laughed and told me ‘These things take time, young lady.’
True to his word, it sure took time, although I don’t really know why. Somewhere in between, the Bill moved to Ministry of Information and Communications, and though I was given to understand during my interview with the Chief Justice that the draft had already been prepared, MOIC said they were still working on the draft. That was a year later, in 2009. Then in 2010 the Minister of Information and Communications was quoted to have said that the Bhutanese people were not ready to ‘discuss RTI, let alone introduce it in Parliament’ in Kuensel. Confusing, to say the least, given that his own ministry was drafting the law.
There wasn’t much talk of RTI after that, although a Facebook page (with a straggling 50 members) occasionally posted updates.
Today, the good news is that National Council member Sangay Khandu has singlehandedly introduced the Bill in Parliament. You can download the Draft Bill from his website (linked to his name) and provide feedback and suggestions- the bill can still be worked on, as the article in ‘The Bhutanese’ newspaper explains.
A look at Right to Information, the RIGHT and the ACT-
Should we talk about whether people should have the right to information?
People HAVE right to information that impacts their lives, irrespective of whether their government grants them that right. People who disagree are stupid, and it is a pointless debate. Fortunately, we don’t have to have that debate. The Constitution grants us, the citizens of Bhutan, the right to information. Look up Section 3 Article 7- “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information.” So the debate is not about whether we have the right to information. We HAVE the right to information, granted to us by the supreme Constitution.
So why do we need a ‘Right to Information Act’?
Turns out, even though it is a Constitutional right, the government doesn’t really abide by it. I know this firsthand- everyday as a media person, I have been denied various documents, papers, and all kinds of information. In the article in ‘The Bhutanese’, MP Sangay Khandu talks about how HE (an MP, who sits in parliament and works on laws and policies and therefore needs to be the most well informed of all) was denied papers! I have linked the Kuensel article above which talks about how the reporter was ironically denied the draft RTI Bill itself. We need this act to ensure that the Constitutional Right given to every Bhutanese citizen is upheld.
What happens when someone refuses information citing reasons such as lack of time, or for no reason?
Again, why we need RTI legislation. It should outline a procedure for acquiring information, and a procedure for giving information, and should clearly state how the information may be presented, a time frame for giving out requested information, the consequence of not giving out requested information, that the agency should give a written explanation if they are, for some reason, unable to give the information.
Isn’t it dangerous, though, to give out information at the asking, to anyone and everyone?
Some information need to be kept secret. There are always some things people need not, and should not know. No one needs to know the personal lives of Politicians (really, although tabloids around the world really don’t care), no one should know, without your permission, the details of an invention/art/idea that you have created. Information that would lead to crime and violence, information that would threaten National Security, information which once released would cause injustice to a person, information that would hamper solving crimes, prevent arrests, assist in crimes- these are a few examples of the information that should not be given out. And the Act should clearly mention these situations, where the information that has been sought can be rightly withheld.
If this makes sense to you, please support RTI in Bhutan- like the Facebook page- I’m not sure who runs it, but it is pretty informative, write to NC MP Sangay Khandu if you have anything to add to the Draft Bill. And talk to your MPs, let them know how you feel about this Act.
We can never be ‘not ready’ for this Act, because no matter who we are, or where we live, right to information that impacts our lives is an inherent right of all people. And in Bhutan, our Constitution supports my claim, and ends the (if there ever was) debate about whether we have a right to information or not. It is simply a matter of ensuring that this right is Upheld.