KATHMANDU, Sept 28: When the world is observing Tuesday at the International Right to Know Day, Nepal presents a sorry picture on information access despite the efforts of judiciary and civil society to guarantee right to information to citizens. Every citizen is entitled to seek and receive information held by the public bodies since it is enshrined as a fundamental right in the Interim Constitution, 2007.
Despite being guaranteed since the adoption of the 1990 Constitution, freedom of information was only given effect in July 2007 with the adoption of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2007. The Parliament of Nepal passed the Act 38 months ago to give effect to the people’s fundamental right to seek, receive and impart information on any matters of public importance held by public agencies.
"Every citizen shall have the right to demand or obtain information on any matters of his/her own or of public importance […]", stated the Article 27 of the Interim Constitution, adopted by the House of Representatives in January 2007.
"The existing RTI Act is the outcome of approximately one-and-half decades of the movement for RTI in Nepal spearheaded by civil society organizations since 1990", said RTI activist Tara Nath Dahal.
Dahal added that media fraternity and civil society organizations had started a nationwide advocacy campaign with the understanding that effective RTI laws and its enforcement could strengthen freedom of expression and press enhancing the media´s role in creating an informed citizenry, empowering democracy and fostering good governance in the country.
The judiciary also played significant role in the interpretation of the fundamental right to information and the development of RTI jurisprudence. In the first public interest litigation on the Mahakali River on the Nepal-India border, the Supreme Court (SC) had issued order to make public the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) inked between the Prime Ministers of both nations on this issue.
The second case was related to the comprehensive feasibility study carried out for the implementation of a hydropower project on the Arun River in Eastern Nepal where details of the study and the project were sought by citizens in public interest. In 1993, the SC gave a verdict that the government was to disclose all information in this matter. In the same judgment, the SC described the importance of RTI and directed the government to enact RTI law as soon as possible.
"The government formed a taskforce to draft a Bill on right to information after the Interim Constitution 2007 guaranteed this right as a fundamental right for the second time," informed former Secretary of the Judicial Council, Kashi Raj Dahal. Dahal had led the seven-member taskforce at the moment.
The parliament endorsed the draft produced by the taskforce with amendments on 18 July 2007 but the Act came in force on 19 August 2007 after 31 days of endorsement. The National Information Commission provided for by the RTI Law was established on 4 June 2008.
Advocate Rishi Ram Ghimire added: "It is the stark reality of Nepal that all issues have been relegated to the backburner with most attention being paid to constitution-making and securing a stable and secure post-conflict governance environment. Hence, the RTI has been overshadowed by a focus on other issues."
Contrary to the view, Kedar Khadka of Pro-Public accused the government of failing to demonstrate strong commitment to utilize RTI as a weapon to improve good governance and enhance people´s participation in development process. "High political will is a must to cut through every hassle and hurdle in the implementation of RTI. Alleging the circumstance is merely escaping the problem", he asserted.
"Until and unless political leadership and senior government officials are committed, the right cannot be ensured effectively", says Binaya Kasajoo, Chief Commissioner of the National Information Commission (NIC).
NIC has a significant role to implement, promote and monitor the RTI laws, but the Commission has not made noteworthy progress towards that end.
“It is a very disappointing situation that people are still not aware that information held by public bodies could be received on demand. No government mechanism is looking into the enforcement and monitoring of the RTI implementation” added Dahal.
The civil society has failed to massively engage citizens whether that is in creating public awareness or in seeking information. "Civil society organizations and media should work hand in hand to create a critical mass cautioning the sides concerned to bring the RTI Act and laws into enforcement", stressed development expert Basu Dev Neupane.
In this context, the world is observing September 28 as international "Right to Know Day". The aim of the Day is to raise awareness of every individual´s right on access to government-held information: the right to know how elected officials are exercising power and how the tax-payers´ money is being spent.
Nepal presents a sorry picture to that connection and so the situation calls for the high political commitment on the part of the state to expedite RTI as a national campaign and for proactive role of the civil society organizations to strengthen demand side and to goad the supply side to enable an environment congenial for RTI.