to Information Workshop at the CPC
of the Commonwealth, especially the South, where approximately two
thirds of the Commonwealth population lives, needs a strong focus
on pro-poor, people friendly laws. The thrust of the seminar on
the 12th of November,1999 at the Commonwealth People’s
Centre, during the CHOGM at Durban was, that the right to information
is a core right, legislating which would enhance the quality of
citizens’ participation and empower them to have more effective
access to basic human rights.
right in focus
Ebrahim, of the Department of Justice, South Africa, outlined the
nature of the right in terms of transparency and empowerment of
the whole polity. Unfortunately, the right is invariably defined
by its limitations, instead of its dynamic qualities. The right
needs to be implemented vertically, i.e, between citizen and state,
and horizontally, between people inter se. Atiur Rehman, an economist
and journalist from Bangladesh pointed out the need for government
to make transparent all the ‘developmental’ processes. Nadeem Malik
from Pakistan said that government itself tries to suppress information
about multinationals such as the setting up of soda factories by
the ICL in Pakistan, which were detrimental to health and the environment.
must change the perception of their own role and there should be
a campaign within government to provide information to the people.
One way of doing this would be to include it in their contract of
service backed by some form of sanctions. This would change the
culture from one of “pension’ to one of performance. There should
also be a mandatory training requirement provided in the law itself.
stress was laid on the language and form of communication. This
is especially relevant to societies in Asia and Africa, where literacy
rates are low. This aspect was tellingly brought home by a pointed
question from Ndombi, a participant who said that she had never
been able to get a copy of the South African Constitution in Zulu.
The reply speaks for itself : “ seven million copies were printed
in all official languages, and they got over within days after which,
four thousand copies were printed and kept in the post offices !”
This well reflects on the government’s perception of the task in
hand and their keenness to address it. Besides this is the essential
element of simplifying information, especially budgetary information
so that it becomes available and relevant to people.
for the right
Minnie, from the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), long
associated with the Open Democracy Advisory Forum which has been
campaigning very effectively on the Open Democracy Bill of South
Africa, said that the idea of access to information was generally
accepted by ‘both sides’. The job of the campaign was to get civil
society participation in the drafting of the law. Issues raised
by the people were of real access. The ODAF consisted of a wide
range of organisations- even some seemingly irreconcilable ones
like trade unions and big business. As the campaign grew, the interest
in its development also grew, even among the government personnel-
who very early in the process started pointing out the constraints
that the system would be put to for the functioning of the right
to information. There was the usual unrealistic apprehension about
the kind and quantity of information the public would ask for. The
ODAF explained to them, based on research from the world over, that
people usually ask for very ordinary and practical kind of information
rather than for dramatic or bulky information.
process of public consultation reflected well in the provisions
of the Bill. A statutory duty was cast on the public servant to
assist people in formulating the request. The open meeting section
was added, applicable from the cabinet downward.
on the Bill eased up after a while. The Task Group wanted to stick
to the Bill which reflected the people’s aspirations, no matter
how contentious it was. When the Bill came to parliament, the open
meeting section was deleted. As of today, if it is not passed in
the current (February 2000) session of Parliament, it will lapse.
Now there is a feeling that perhaps it is better to have a law-
though perhaps not an ideal one- rather than revert back to the
‘need based’ Constitutional
Frankel, from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, UK, a coalition
of 90 organisations, has been spearheading a campaign for Freedom
of Information for almost two decades. The campaign started with
seeking medical information and negative school records, issues
of local environment such as closure of local schools, etc. FOI
is seen as not only an individual’s right to access information,
but also as a tool for prevention of corruption, inefficiency and
malpractice. It may not be a perfect remedy, but will certainly
constitute a shift in the equation between a citizen and the government.
governments feel that FOI is a nuisance, as was succinctly expressed
by Jeffrey Howe who said, “ there should be no criticism of the
contradiction between what the policy is and how it is expressed”!
However, secrecy results in government losing credibility with the
public. The Labour Government which came to power in 1997 introduced
a White Paper on the right to know, with excellent proposals. However,
the minister who had made the White Paper was soon sacked and a
watered down version of the Bill is now before the British Parliament.
Joshi from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) detailed
the experience of the Indian movement for right to information-which
is an interesting mix of pressure from sections of media, legal
persons and academics, and more importantly, sections of a rural,
largely illiterate population agitating against corruption in government.
The Indian experience is a mixed one with some successes with the
most marginalised groups being empowered through right to information
from local bodies, and a Bill in the offing with not much to speak
for itself. While the right to information has caught the imagination
of people both in government as well as outside it, the general
response of government as reflected in successive drafts and some
state enactments is to ride rough shod over basic principles for
a meaningful Right to Information law.
Smart of Article 19, UK succinctly articulated the basics for freedom
of information legislation, which are perhaps not in any doubt and
have been endorsed to some extent by the Commonwealth Law Ministers
Conference last year.These include:
disclosure, including proactive disclosure
test for legitimate denials
forum for dispute resolution
for unreasonable denials and delays.
with advocating these principles widely, the thrust should be on
the adoption of good practices at all levels. This must be supported
by a conscious exercise of thinking through the objections likely
to be raised and countering the unreasonable ones effectively.