Apr 8, 2016

Historic judgment will break the culture of secrecy

According to the Political Party Registration Rules 2008, registered political parties must submit their audited financial statements to the Election Commission (EC) every year. Such a requirement was created under the provisions of RPO 1972 to ensure transparency and accountability of political parties.
In the last year and a half, I repeatedly tried to obtain the audited financial statements of political parties from the EC, but failed despite formally appealing twice to the Information Commission (IC). Recently, the Bangladesh High Court, in a historic judgment, declared the decisions of both the EC and IC illegal.

The judgment is historic; it is the first of its kind under The Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2009, and is expected to contain important interpretations of the law. However, it is already clear from the court's short order that citizens cannot be denied the information held by an 'authority' (i.e. any government department and, under certain circumstances, non-government organisations), even though such information come from third parties. This means that despite being collected from third parties, they are public information, and citizens are entitled to have them. The RTI Act, however, allows some exceptions. For example, citizens are not entitled to information that if divulged would threaten national security; or would impede the right to intellectual property of a third party; or would compromise individual personal privacy and so on. In fact, other than such exceptions, all information-related materials or their replicas are considered to be public information.
A long and painful story lies behind this groundbreaking judgment. For several years, I have been informally trying to get copies of audited financial statements of political parties that were submitted to the EC under law. Failing to make any headway in this effort, I formally submitted an application, under the RTI Act, to the EC on June 12, 2013. Despite repeated efforts – filing applications three times to the EC – I failed to obtain the desired information. The EC argued that audited financial statements of political parties are their confidential information and should be obtained directly from the parties. The EC further asserted that it would need permission from political parties to give me their information. The EC subsequently wrote to the political parties seeking their permission, but did not get a positive response from any major political party, including Awami League and BNP.
During this period, I appealed to the IC twice but received no remedy. Accepting the EC's justification for denying me the information, the IC rejected my first appeal. I made the second appeal to IC on June 1, 2014, arguing that the Commission erred in its interpretation of the law. The IC again rejected my appeal almost with the same argument.
In January 2015, six citizens – M Hafizuddin Khan, ASM Shahjahan, Syed Abul Moksud, Ali Imam Mazumder, Dr. Tofail Ahmed and I – filed a writ in public interest. After the final hearing, a High Court Bench, comprised of Justice Farah Mahbub and Justice Kazi Izharul Haque, in their judgment on February 18, 2016, declared the decisions of the EC and IC illegal. Dr. Sharif Bhuiyan and Barrister Tanim Hossain Shaon were our counsel. Dr. Shamsul Bari provided much important technical support.
The judgment is groundbreaking for several reasons. First, it has provided an opportunity for the information flow to become open and the culture of secrecy to be broken. In fact, as pointed out earlier, because of this judgment, all information held by government offices, with some exceptions, will be viewed as public rather than private information. This will clearly remove barriers to citizens' rights to receive such information. Second, the pre-requisite to the right of expression is opinion formation, which requires information. Thus, the citizens' right to information has come to be once again recognised, through this judgment, as their right to expression – and is thus a fundamental right. Third, because of this progressive judgment, an opportunity is created to establish transparency of our political parties.
It is imperative for political parties to be transparent and accountable to achieve good governance in a country. Our political parties are constitutionally recognised entities. However, they are considered to be dens of corruption. For example, the 2011 household survey of Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) identified our political parties as amongst the most corrupt organisations in the country. In fact, most illegal and corrupt activities in our country are allegedly carried out under their shelter. Ensuring transparency and accountability of political parties would, therefore, require declaring them as 'authorities' under the RTI Act.
In addition, political parties are not business houses and they do not act in the interest of their 'owners'. In fact, unlike business houses, political parties do not have owners as such, and they act in public interest. They become organised, publish election manifestos and field candidates to go to power to promote public interest. Thus, it is important for our political parties to come under the RTI Act and be declared as authorities in public interest.
Also, political parties supposedly are run with public contribution rather than with money from 'owners', as in the case of business houses. Thus, it is important that political parties become transparent to the public, which provides further justification for political parties to become authorities under the RTI Act. It may be noted that the Indian Information Commission has already declared their political parties as authorities, even though they were outside the purview of their RTI Act, as adopted by their Parliament.
Furthermore, political parties receive some support from the public exchequer. For example, registered political parties do not have to pay taxes. Institutions that receive public support must be accountable to the people, and establishing transparency to the public is the means to ensuring accountability to them.
To conclude, our Constitution recognises citizenry as the source of all state power. According to the preamble of our RTI Act, its purpose is to empower citizens with information. Citizens must have all the relevant information about political parties if they are to make informed judgments as voters, which is only possible if parties are declared as authorities. Thus, we hope that in public interest, our political parties would be brought under the RTI Act in the near future.

Source: The Daily Star, April 09, 2016

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