Scandinavian welfare state Sweden introduced freedom of information act back in 1766. It was one of the earliest known examples of practicing information rights. Thanks to British colonial legacy, we had, in contrast, an official secrecy act that prohibited officials from divulging information to members of the public.
Starting with Sweden and Finland, the principle of the freedom of information has been approved as part of legislation throughout the world in over 90 countries today, representing nearly five billion people. Bangladesh joined the RTI club only in 2009.
From that legacy of secrecy, which was in force since 1923, to the enactment of Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2009, Bangladesh traversed a long journey of ups and downs. Over the period the balance in favour of protecting state’s interests over people’s interests has been reversed.
Laws changed so did the organizational structures within our government and non-government institutions. In compliance to the RTI Act many organizations have adopted information disclosure policies; many others are in the process of doing so, many assigned designated officials to look after the RTI issues, many others are following suits.
As this is a paradigm shift from culture of secrecy to culture of openness, the struggle is on for people at large, journalists, NGO workers and intellectuals, in particular, as well as for the RTI activists and pro-active officials to carry forward the journey.
The newsmen and general members of the public who have had some experiences of filing RTI applications seeking a piece of information or two from different government establishments over the last couple of years or so consider itself a success that there are designated desks, officials there to entertain their queries.
Himel Chakma, a vernacular daily’s correspondent in a hill district, filed RTI applications seeking to know information on number of legally operating brick kilns in his district, Rangamati, and statistics of foodgrains distributed among the poor.
Chakma got some information, for some more he was in the process of filing an appeal while for some other information he required to re-file his application by correctly following the procedures.
His experience shows – the applicant, the authorities in hold of information and officials concerned – all have got something to learn from their respective exercises.
“As we’re practicing it new, we’re learning by making some errors. As the officials are also receiving such applications seeking information for the first time, they’re also learning from such exercises that how to deal with the RTI issues,” comments Himel, who has the privilege to attend a number of MRDI-administered trainings where RTI procedures were taught practically.
Rashed Mehedi, a Dhaka-based reporter of a daily, who has filed several RTI applications for information in past two years, expresses his firm resolve, “I am hopeful that through further exercises we’ll be able to make better use of RTI applications in the future and come up with good pieces of reporting.”
Sometimes formal introductions and face-to-face interactions between journalists and government officials also yield positive results in terms of journalists getting the right kinds of information that would serve his reporting purpose and at the same time it would no way put any dent to the image of the officials or the offices concerned.
Thanks to MRDI-initiated programmes in divisional township of Rajshahi, a regional correspondent of an English daily Anwar Ali had the opportunity to interact with government audit officials.
Though Ali had previously filed formal applications seeking some information, he was not much pushy in getting the information. But once he caught up with the audit officials in his own city, Ali’s interests on audit issues grew. The officials were also helpful resulting in greater inroads for Ali to poke his nose for news in the important area of government’s audit sector.