Finally, it comes

After nearly one and a half decades of calls by the media and civil society for legislation guaranteeing the citizen’s right to know, it has finally arrived, as the interim parliament on Wednesday passed the Bill unanimously. Even after the restoration of democracy in 1990, the constitutional right to information could not be enforced because of the lack of clear legal provisions. The Act Relating to the Right to Information, 2064 BS, aims to make simpler and easier the access of the individual to information of public importance that lies with public institutions. The idea is to make the business of the state open and transparent according to universally recognised democratic practices and make the authorities accountable to the people.

The new law provides for punishment ranging from Rs.1,000 to Rs.25,000 or departmental

action against the head or information officer of any public institution for withholding, refusing information or for providing partial or wrong information or destroying information without “reasonable grounds”. Besides, Rs.200 has been set a daily fine against officials for any delay in parting with information. The “reasonable” rider covers the kind of information to be treated as confidential according to law. The effectiveness of the law will, however, depend to a large extent on what classes of documents or information will be treated as classified, on how strictly the penalty against the law-violating officials will be enforced, and how promptly complaints about concealment of information will be acted on. Almost all laws in Nepal that have sought to protect the rights of the individual have been rendered largely ineffectual because of inadequate legal provisions for action against deniers of the people’s rights. The new legislation also provides a fine of up to Rs.5, 000 to Rs.25, 000 against individuals who, after having obtained such information, misuse it.

Other welcome features include the establishment of a national information commission to secure

the legal right to information and the obligation of employees to provide information having to do with acts that meet the definition of a crime under the prevalent laws. This law is yet another step towards empowering the people, strengthening their sovereign powers and making democracy fruitful. Democracy is much more than the periodic holding of elections. In the process of implementation, however, disputes are bound to arise between seekers of information and officials supposed to give it, as the old mindsets and the new obligations are likely to clash. One essential measure of the effectiveness of implementation will be how promptly and with what impartiality and independence these complaints are addressed. The citizen’s right to know is vital to free flow of information in society and press freedom, human and fundamental rights. Bureaucrats, other state officials, and even elected representatives tend to hide information — in Nepal, lying even to the public, to the judiciary or to the parliament has been a fairly common practice even when vital issues of national interest were involved.