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Speakers at National Press Club discussion voice complaints about Right to Information Act exemptions that render act "toothless"
The Daily Star
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Speakers at a roundtable yesterday called for ending the culture of secrecy and introducing e-governance in order to get the most benefit from the right to information law after its enactment.
Stressing the need for more discussions with grassroots people on the draft of Right to Information (RTI) Ordinance 2008, they urged the government to extend the deadline for public opinion on the draft, which ends today.
They also called on the government to bring several changes to the draft ordinance, especially the section on exemption from disclosure, to ensure maximum disclosure of information.
Several speakers also suggested bringing only the government offices and the organisations receiving public funds under the jurisdiction of the law.
Shushashoner Janney Nagorik (Shujan) organised the roundtable at the National Press Club to collect public opinion on the draft. Syed Abul Moksud moderated it.
Reacting to an opinion that the law has brought the entire private sector under its umbrella, Shujan President Prof Muzaffer Ahmad said NGOs and businessmen work in public space and receive direct or indirect assistance from the government. "We have the right to information about them."
He also said the draft did not clearly define the issues regarding the structure of the information commission, funding and offices. "The law will be rendered toothless if Article 8 (article on exemption) makes no specific instances," he added.
Prof Muzaffer stressed the need for a civil society organisation that will explain to people the implication of court judgment and orders. "Only having information is not knowledge; so it does not empower people. People need to understand them for their application."
Criticising the formation of the selection committee for the information commission with bureaucrats, human rights activist Hameeda Hossain demanded inclusion of representatives from other fields.
"Preamble of the draft identifies the right to information merely as a constitutional right, not a fundamental right," said Badiul Alam Majumder, Shujan secretary, in his keynote paper.
He said all information can be suppressed by citing threats to "national security" and "public interest". So, there should be specific instances which information, if disclosed, can harm national security, he added.
He also demanded that the provision of exemption from disclosure for the reasons of public interest be deleted "since the law is advocating disclosure for public interest".
He called on the government to consider not charging the people living below poverty line any fees for seeking information.
Badiul Alam also proposed incorporating into the draft a provision for arbitration council at every office, which will deal with the appeals from an information seeker before he approaches the information commission.
"Representatives of the organisation concerned, citizens and professionals may be included in the council," he said, adding that such council would lessen the pressure on the information commission.
He also proposed that the authorities who would deny the people access to information should go to the information commission to explain the reasons for his action.
Awami League leader Suranjit Sengupta called on the government and the NGOs working on this issue to include the political parties in the process "since they will have to approve the law in parliament".
Barrister Amir-Ul Islam demanded that the information commission be set up before enactment of the law.
Former ambassador Waliur Rahman called for a provision for disclosure of information about defence procurement.
Editor of the Bhorer Kagoj Shyamal Dutta demanded reduction in the time limit for disclosure of information to the mass media.
Date Posted: 3/23/2008
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