Right to be free

Never has Nepal had a law guaranteeing the right to information. Despite spells of democracy, including the twelve years of elected multiparty rule, nothing went farther than talk or commitment to introduce a bill in the parliament. Once it was even drafted. As in the past, present government leaders have made similar pledges, as state minister for information and communication Dilendra Prasad Badu talked of finalising the draft billl by the coming week. Officials have indicated that the draft will provide for penalties against civil servants for sitting on information of public interest, coupled with deduction of the amount of penalty from salary. The proposed bill is said to be based on the eight international principles of the right to information.

One of the reasons why the citizens have not been able to enforce even their constitutionally guaranteed rights properly is that the government has not put in place the laws necessary for their execution. Even when there exists such a law, it does not provide punishment for those in positions of authority who refuse to abide by it. This state of impunity has stood in the way of establishing a society based truly on the rule of law. To give the benefit of the doubt to the political parties in power, let’s hope for the best. But without the actionable right to information, the freedom of the Press and publication, and democracy itself, will be rendered redundant.

If the parties to be represented in an interim government want to build a new Nepal, their actions should manifest all the values they have professed. Every citizen’s right to information must be guaranteed, as without it the public’s right to know, free flow of information in society and press freedom, human and fundamental rights, would be seriously compromised. Even under an elected rule, officials and government agencies got away with murder — they lied to and defied the judiciary; the government ignored the parliament’s injunction, for example, when it required certain documents regarding some scandal to be presented before it; when even government leaders, including a PM, told the people blatant lies on vital matters of national interest; and when government authorities concealed information which was likely to embarrass officials or land them in trouble. Even when the 1990 Constitution grants great freedoms and rights, the general people could not benefit from them fully. So it is essential to incorporate a clarity of duties, responsibilities, accountability, unambiguous punitive measures and mechanism for right enforcement. Much of the relevance of such legal provisions would be lost if the deadline for making available the information sought was not specified, say a week, along with inescapable punishment for non-compliance. Closely linked to the right to information is the need to make sure that those in power are not allowed to run the news media at the expense of the taxpayers’ money to promote their vested interests. But on this, sadly, neither the government nor the political parties are clear.