Friday, June 27, 2008

Roadblocks on the Right to Information highway

27 June, 2008 - The Right to Information Act is almost equivalent to a state secret in Bhutan, with even senior political figures expressing surprise that there existed such a draft act. There is also no indication from the government on when they plan to introduce this vital act in parliament.

Already 59 countries have information acts in place, while 19 more are on their way. Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Nepal, North Korea and Iran do not have this act.

The truth for a majority of our Bhutanese brethren is that, while they may be quite open with one another, there is a awed and dumbstruck attitude when dealing with officialdom.

A sad sight is watching village folks walking meekly into government offices and dzongs, some of them carrying gifts for even basic functions. Inside, they are at the mercy of clerks or even 'dashos'. All this arrogance is with good reason, especially in the villages, because these officials or even gups' offices control all information on everything from birth to death certificates.

The absence of a Right to Information Act to make these characters sit up will consign 80 percent of our population, living on subsistence agriculture, to this never ending cycle of red tape.
Officialdom in Bhutan has too much power over the people in Bhutan and this power is deeper in areas where the information flow is less.

In the urban areas like Thimphu, information restriction has a more sophisticated and sinister role. Many of our ministries and government agencies are fortresses of information and laws unto themselves, keeping out anybody not in the circle of access. Many juniors are left wondering why they never hear from their seniors of trainings or foreign trips until it is too late. Many accountants are left wondering how an officer sitting in his office the whole week just made a travel claim of countless ngultrums. Honest businessmen scratch their heads when fronting companies do well and get away under the nose of authority. Common people shake their heads in disbelief when infrastructure projects turn into expensive and rundown white elephants to be repeated over and over again. Even some of the new private media, claiming to represent our times, are thinly veiled money making and flexible ventures, more worried about advertisement revenue and revealing pictures.

With these few examples of our 'transparent and open system' in vogue, we are on the verge of implementing our biggest plan size of around Nu 140 billion with poverty alleviation as the main aim.

Even at the local government level, the last time the government released some small funds, many gups all over the country got embroiled in corruption cases. For the sake of around 80 percent of our country, living on subsistence farming and 24 percent below the poverty line, we cannot afford to make any wrong moves this time around.

In this context, the stated aim of this government is to strengthen ACC, who themselves say that the lack of information flow is the main cause of corruption. So, instead of only strengthening the investigative mechanism, it will be far more useful to introduce RTI and make sure that the system has clauses designed to prevent corruption.

Many bureaucrats may not be happy with the RTI Act, stating that it could be used to harass officers or take up time. But experience in other countries has shown that RTI in the end has always led to overall cost and time savings, better civic life, more accountability and fairness in the system. This also means that those, who are not well organized, transparent, accountable or efficient, may fall victim to their own weakness. There will be the initial hiccups of transition but the short-term pains will be far outweighed by the long-term gains.

A supporting Act to RTI to protect people in government who expose corruption or injustice will go a long way in rooting out the bad apples.

One way to kill RTI will be to pass it with inspiring and sweet speeches but do nothing to promote or enforce it. Even the courts will be able to handle only so many RTI appeal cases at a time. The government must launch RTI awareness campaigns, especially in the villages, and ensure that all organisations comply with the demands of the Act.
By Tenzing Lamsang

Saturday, June 21, 2008

To inform: Editorial (Kuensel)

21 June, 2008 -
The concept of the right to information, widely described today as "access to information", is not up for debate. It is guaranteed by the Constitution. The delivery of information is what we are really talking about.

The Constitution grants information as a right to the citizens of Bhutan. For the new political system to work, it is critical that the people are informed as they take up their responsibilities as citizens. So the next step is that all branches of government and the so-called fourth estate, the media, actually provide this information. In Bhutan we are up against two elements that make this process difficult.

The first is that we are not used to sharing information, not even among government organisations. In fact we are more used to protecting information. This is both deliberate and inadvertent. One attempt by the ministry of information to share an information policy last year was stumped by a lack of response from the bureaucracy.

Secondly, we actually do not know how to make information public. And we don't know what information to make public. Specifically, we do not know the difference between information that is classified and information that needs to be widely disseminated.

A solution to the first may be in sight. The new Cabinet is a team that belongs to the same political party and, therefore, share the same platform. This team is bound by the requirement to deliver the mandates spelt out by the Constitution. And they have promises to uphold.

The challenge, however, will be the bureaucracy that might be difficult to budge, as a system. Our politicians will have to make a conscious and consistent effort to push bureaucrats.

The second problem requires an education process. This is not difficult in the sense that we do not need to invent the process. Many countries have well-established information sharing systems, now using the wide reach of the Internet. There is now no excuse for information like jobs, recruitments processes, scholarships, and application forms of all types not being public.

But, like the democratisation process that has overhauled the Bhutanese political system, there is no option. The Constitution spells out our responsibilities in writing. Officials of the three arms of government, the media, and the public are now bound by sacred obligations.

Today, our basic problem is our mindset. We need to understand, and accept, that we are in the service of the people.
Democracies die behind closed doors

Self-Censorship In Refugee Reporting

By: T. P. Mishra
THERE are many ways representing encroachment in a media house, amongst which ‘self-censor’ also exists. The operation of media houses inside Bhutanese refugee camps came to public notice as early as 2000. During the initial days, Bhutanese media practitioners were less trained of professionalism in it. Most of the newspapers and other bulletins published during that period simply served as mouthpieces of political parties or other organizations.

Bhutanese media sector in exile underwent a drastic change after the formation of Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) – Bhutan formally in 2004 comprising young and committed journalists. Since then new media practitioners were engulfed with the concept of maintaining balance and impartiality in the contents--be it newspaper, radio programs, or online they generated.

Now-a-days, some of the media houses such as the Bhutan News Service (BNS), owned by all independent Bhutanese journalists in exile are moving ahead abided by the standard ethics of journalism widely-practiced around the globe. They maintain professionalism in it, though untargeted for any financial profits. Following continuous ‘complications’ both inside and outside the refugee camps, Bhutanese media in exile is undergoing crucial phase in which they are abided by self-censorship.

On the other side, Bhutanese media in exile is under intimidation with the acceleration in the process for third country resettlement. There is divided opinion among individuals and various groups operating inside the refugee camps. When media covers issues related to repatriation, the other groups oppose it and when issues of resettlement are highlighted, pro-repatriation refugees term the media of being advocator of the United States that has coined the offer of third country resettlement.

Local authorities and other concerned agencies including some of the underground revolutionary outfits are also keeping continuous ‘vigilance’ on the Bhutanese media houses in exile. Now, journalists in exile fear to bring some of the issues of greater values to public notice due to existence of self-censorship within them. Besides, they have a sense of fear of being intimidated if they give coverage to such issues.

Of late, even local journalists in Jhapa are displaced from their regular reporting duties citing that they reported the issues related to ‘infiltration’ of non-Bhutanese in the refugee resettlement program. Bhupendra Timsina, Damak-based correspondent for Nepal Samacharpatra daily in an exclusive interview with Saranarthi Sarokar at Nepal FM 91.8 on Saturday June 21, said that separate gangs comprising both refugees and non-Bhutanese threatened him over telephone for reporting on infiltration of non-Bhutanese in refugee resettlement.

Timsina, who had written a news story regarding the infiltration of non-Bhutanese in the refugee resettlement program on June 8 in Nepal Samacharpatra, is mentally disturbed in returning to his normal duties. According to Timsina, attempts are underway from non-Bhutanese to fly to the US in the name of Bhutanese refugees and that a section of refugees are also involved in helping non-Bhutanese for such attempts.

However, in a joint statement issued on June 18, the US Embassy in Kathmandu and UNHCR strongly refuted such news reports thereby clarifying that such reports were unfounded. Here, the main concern is how could the gang threatened Timsina if attempts to ‘infiltration’ are not underway? While respecting the stance of both Embassy and Timsina, we can at least make a predicament that there are possibilities of infiltration even if such cases aren’t found till date. So authorities concerned should be alert in possible infiltration of non-Bhutanese in refugee resettlement.

Free Reporting
Thus, existence of self-censorship within journalists both inside Bhutanese refugee camps and in local areas is still reflected in many forms which should not have happened in democratic country. Free and fearless atmosphere should be created at the earliest so that the journalists are given chances to exercise their right to reporting after erasing the sense of self-censorship within them.

Right to Information Act – Power to the People

21 June, 2008 - The Right to Information Act, once passed, will allow ordinary Bhutanese to be informed and get a responsible, transparent and accountable government. Though the Act was drafted in 2007, the cabinet is yet to introduce it in the Assembly. “Information is absolutely critical for fighting corruption and the government should introduce the act and enforce it at the earliest date possible,” said the chairperson of the anti corruption commission (ACC), Neten Zangmo.

“The Right to Information Act will allow a fair and just system, sensitise the administrative machinery and empower the people,” said the chief justice, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.

On the origins of RTI Draft Act, the chief justice, who headed the drafting committee said, “His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo in his great wisdom had earlier asked that the draft of all major acts be ready before the constitution is passed.”

Under RTI, any Bhutanese can go to any government agency and ask for official information, which the agency has to provide within a certain time period or face prosecution in court. For example, a farmer can question the executing agencies on how exactly money was spent for his water supply. “RTI is therefore an enforceable public right to access information in possession of any government ministry, department, nationalised industry, public corporation or any other organisation substantially financed by the government,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye. “Information here pertains to all written papers, documents, drawings, electronic, photographic, film, audio and physical records, including all records of all administrative decisions.” The government agency would not be allowed to question the person seeking information or set conditions for giving information.

“The only exempt information shall be those affecting the security and sovereignty of the nation, personal information with no relation to public activity, protected intellectual property rights, prohibition by court order and prohibition by another act which mentions this act, substantially diverts public resources and interferes with lawful functions,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.

He said that the clauses could also not be misused by any authority to deny valid information. “Apart from national security issues, the police and the courts will also come under this act,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.

Under the Act, it will be mandatory for every government agency to set up an information cell headed by an information officer. The responsible ‘public authority’ under the act will be the head of the public authority itself. So it is likely that, in the case of ministries, the public authority will be the secretaries, according to the chief justice.

“The public authority will also have to make available to the public an annually updated detailed organisational and operational statement that describes its structure, functions, budget, decision making procedures, powers, laws, all categories of official information, advisory boards, telephone directory of all employees, facilities for obtaining information, policies, receipt of concessions and permits granted by it,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.

The public authority will also have to maintain all information in an organised and easily reproducible manner and provide it in the desired format at the cheapest cost possible. “The public authority will also have to submit to the prime minister an annual report on the compliance of the authority with its obligations under the Act,” he added.

“All information will have to be furnished within 30 days from application and an extension of 15 days will only be granted if information asked is of a large volume of records affecting government function, consultations needed to clear the request and also to protect any government interest or rights of any person,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye. He also said that a maximum three-month extension would be possible in exceptional cases like a national calamity of large proportions. But any extension or denial would have to be submitted in written form by the public authority. “If any information is not provided within time or any reasonable extension not applied for in writing, then it can be taken as denial,” said the chief justice.

“In case of denial of any information, the court can be approached which will decide the case under the civil and criminal procedures code of Bhutan on the lines of administrative adjudication, liability for damages, denial of information and contempt of court,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.

On introducing the Act, Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley did not commit to a specific date but said that the current acts were taking longer than expected to be passed and also that the cabinet would have to discuss the RTI Act before introducing it.

The minister for works and human settlement, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, said, “The Act is important for democracy, fighting corruption and keeping people informed.”

“However, since RTI is a fundamental right, even if the government has not passed the act, anybody can go and apply for information and, on being denied, can move the high court, which in turn can ask the government to fulfill its constitutional obligations,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye. The RTI is already a fundamental right given under the constitution to every Bhutanese citizen.

He also said that the powers of judicial review will make sure that the basic framework of RTI and the constitution supporting it cannot be changed.
By Tenzing Lamsang

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

One killed, two injured in an accident

Source: Bhutan Broadcasting Service
June 14: A 58-year-old man has been killed on the spot and two others were injured in an accident in Bumthang. The accident took place some eight kilometers from Ura at around 3:30 pm on Thursday.

The vehicle plunged 200 meters below the road.

The deceased was working as production manager with the centennial radio. The two other injured are being treated at the Wangdicholing hospital in Bumthang. One had suffered left clavicle fracture. The other escaped with bruises.

They were on their way to Trashigang. The cause of the accident has not been ascertained.,%20two%20injured%20in%20an%20accident.html

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Media rights (EDITORIAL)

Source: Bhutan Observer
23 May 2008:
When Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of the largest democracyin the world visited Bhutan, his entourage included a separate plane for the media. Now that is what is called a democracy in practice. What happens subsequently in the world’s youngest democracy, the smallest private media is denied access to the meeting of the two prime ministers. Only Kuensel and BBS, the state-run media are allowed. That is certainly not a democracy.

One private radio went on air denouncing the discrimination, saying that he was invited and then humiliated. But radio is yet to pick up, the audience being youth who will not understand the nuances of the freedom of press. The private newspapers and the proprietor of the radio station issued a press release to Kuensel and BBS about what transpired before the event but they did not run the story. So much for state-run media - after all, it is the owner who dictates the terms. That is not democracy either.

We have been made to understand that there was some communication gap resulting in the fiasco. We understand that there is. This is not the first time that such discrimination has happened. Private media has, since inception upon royal decree, always been looked upon as a pariah for taking on issues beyond the confines of state media. If the role of media was to echo the voice of the government, then it would seem that entrepreneurs were hoodwinked in investing in media. That is not democracy.

There is the need to resolve the disconnect between the hat and the help. The head of the government has been elected by the people but the beaurocracy remains firmly entrenched in what it is best known for. The red tape that defies the logic of service to the people. The transition to democracy is about change, change that has to be pummelled into the heads of people at the helm of the system. They got to ride along with the times or get out of the scene altogether. A stagnant mindset is not democracy.

The constitution guarantees the freedom of media. Private media was encouraged to keep abreast with the gift of democracy by His Majesty the Fourth King. A democracy is implausible in the absence of the freedom of press. It should be clear now, in no uncertain terms, that all media should be given equal access and opportunity. Any official who does not understand this should be weeded out. If, by some fluke, state media had written about the rejection of the private media, how would it have looked in the Indian press. Now that would have been true democracy.
Kelly on May 23rd, 2008 6:37 pm

And everything happened right after, PM JYT said his government places paramount importance on media. By media he must have meant only the state run media. Private media, when it comes to all this VVIP visits and other important meetings, are deprived from participation. While the BBS and the Kuensel gets through even the closed door.
But that does not mean, private media should lose heart. Private media elsewhere in the world has survived. So shall the bhutanese one too. The hope lies in carrying out its responsiblities responsibly. The hope lies in the adamant quest for a level playing field.
Do not feel bad when some other is given the preference. Private media has made its impact. What Kuensel, could not do in the last 30 years or so, the two private media did it in just two years. It is an achievment to be proud of. Forget BBS. It needs to be completely corporatized or handed over to a private organzation.
And the old theory that media will always remain under the state control for varied reasons, is true. But Bhutanese Private media (I keep trust on BT and BO) should not give in rather it should break new grounds. Do stories that are meaningful, that concerns the larger masses, and those that wil change our lives.
If the government does not attribute and give equal importance-we should raise our voice. Here is a voice-the editorial. Fighting in the right spirit. Here is my vioce. Hope there are others too who would follow suit.

LAYGMAN on May 29th, 2008 12:24 pm
I fully agree with what Kelly commented. The more bariers you encounter, more determined you should be. I commend on what the two print media has been able to do in the last two years of comming into scenerio. We appreciate the kind of the news the private media are covering compared to the state run media which always comes out with government statistics and plans and not the core issues which an ordinary face in their everyday life.
I feel that when it comes to authenticity of the news, people know that they get better and more truth in the two private newspapers. Now, that itself is what should spur you.people like me are troubled to learn that you are descriminated in getting access to cover a very important event which infact was an oppurtunity for the world’s youngest democracy to show to its big brother and the world’s largest democracy that we are indeed genuine when we claim that we are now a proud member of the club of democracy in its true form.