MoIC: Ministry of information and communications (MoIC) made a second presentation on the Right to Information (RTI) bill to the Cabinet yesterday.
MoIC secretary, Dasho Kinley Dorji, said the bill will undergo some minor changes following the feedback received yesterday, and will be presented to the Cabinet again next week.
The government will then table it during the first session of the second Parliament, which is scheduled for September 7.
First publicised on the MoIC website in July last year, the 2013 RTI bill went through a number of revisions. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay posted its latest draft on his blog for public examination and feedback.
The draft specifies that, besides the citizen, it will extend to branches and levels of government, including the executive, legislative, judiciary, private bodies carrying out public functions or receiving public funds, and even the military.
The objectives of RTI are to promote government transparency and accountability, a fair and competitive business environment, personal dignity and to combat corruption.
However, a public authority can still refuse to disclose requested information on ten conditions (see box).
|10 kinds of information that are exempted in RTI
A public authority may refuse to disclose the requested information if
(1) the disclosure would harm the sovereignty, integrity or security of Bhutan, or the relations of the country with a foreign government.
(2) it concerns the private, non-official affairs of the royal family;
(3) disclosure of the information would undermine the free and frank provision of advice within government
(4) the information has been received in confidence from a foreign government or any organization on the understanding that it would be treated as confidential and disclosure of which would constitute a breach of confidence;
(5) the information includes commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property rights such as patents, trademarks, or copyrights, and the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the relevant authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;
(6) the Information is expressly forbidden to be published by any Court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of Court;
(7) the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person;
(8) the disclosure would lead to revelation of the identity of a source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes;
(9) the disclosure of such information would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders;
(10) such information relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Public authority or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.
For instance, information can be denied if disclosure of the information would harm the sovereignty of Bhutan, or if it endangers the physical safety of a person.
The 2013 draft also removes the head of state and “most senior religious officials” from being exempted if the information requested concerns private, non-official affairs, which was stated in earlier drafts. Only the royal family is exempt from such a request.
The 2013 RTI bill, if enacted, would require public authorities to designate as many information media officers within three months to cater to information requests.
It would also require public authorities to maintain its official information in an organised fashion, and in a variety of reproducible formats.
Public authorities will also have to make available to the public a detailed statement, which would inform a public member of how that particular organisation works, for instance, the procedures followed in decision making, and the duties and responsibilities of its employees.
A request for information would be submitted in writing to an information media officer (IMO), in person, post, facsimile, or e-mail.
This would have to be acknowledged within two days by the IMO. If a public member is unable to make a written request, the IMO is required to assist the person to compile and submit a written request.
A request for official information does not require a reason to be stated, nor does it require personal details, if the information sought would violate their privacy.
However, an IMO may demand the identity of the person making the request, to ensure they are entitled to that information, unless the information is deemed to be of personal or private nature.
The time period for providing that requested information has been shortened in the 2013 RTI bill to not later than 14 working days. But the public authority can fall back on two time extensions, a 30-day and an “extraordinary additional” 90-day extension.
A two-day time limit for information that is necessary to safeguard the life or liberty of a person remains unchanged.
Besides the 10 conditions, which a public authority can cite to deny information, it can also fall back on three limited conditions.
That is if compliance with an information request would “substantially and unreasonably” divert resources from the public authority’s other operations, or interfere with the performance of the lawful functions of an official, or the “head of the public authority has personally attested to this fact”.
A partial denial can also be used when some of the information requested would contain information exempted under RTI. Exempted information would be removed, and the remainder provided.
If denied information or for other grievances related to RTI, a public member can appeal to MoIC within 30 days. If satisfied of reasonable grounds, MoIC may launch an inquiry to address the grievance.
However, if the public member is still not satisfied by MoIC, the grievance can be forwarded to a court of law.
If a public authority or IMO is found to be refusing to provide information on unreasonable grounds, or willfully obstructing access to information, a minimum penalty of petty misdemeanour can be handed down. The public authority or IMO can also be held liable for damages and costs.
Requesting official information will not be free. An earlier draft waived fees for those whose wealth or income fall below the poverty line.
But in the latest one, while a specific fee is not mentioned, it is stated that MoIC shall establish a fee structure based on the cost of providing the information, which will include the actual cost of making copies, collecting samples, and other direct costs.
By Gyalsten K Dorji