The Right to Information (RTI) ensures that information created and collected by the government cannot be denied to the citizens or public. This is the case especially in those countries which have enacted RTI laws. This brings about openness, transparency, accountability, and responsiveness in government functioning which leads to good governance.
Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right’s status as a legally binding treaty obligation was affirmed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. This has placed the right to access information firmly within the body of human rights law and is linked to respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings. It is crucial for participatory democracy- often seen as the “oxygen” of democracy as without information, citizens cannot make informed electoral choices or participate in decision-making processes. In other words, RTI underpins all other human rights including the right to food wherein all people have the right to feed themselves and their families with dignity.
RTI holds within it the right to seek information, as well as the duty to give information to store, organise, and make it easily available and to withhold it only when it is proven that it is in the best public interest. The duty to enable access rests with the government and has two aspects:
Enable public access information upon request
Proactively disseminate essential information
The right to information can only be effective if it is guaranteed by law, and the procedures of accessing information are clearly laid out in the law. Today, laws giving individuals a right to access information held by public bodies are in force in nearly 110 countries globally.
The key purpose of RTI is to bring about transparency and openness in government so that citizens are well informed, and find ways of engaging with the state to promote accountability and citizen-centric development. In fact, government effectiveness, control of corruption, voice and accountability are some of the key dimensions of good governance. According to Kofi Anan, the 7th Secretary-General of the United Nations “Good governance is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development”.
RTI is a very effective legislative tool for good governance, if implemented effectively, it can improve the implementation of government programmes and policy including their obligation to fulfil people’s right to food. Fulfilling the right to food means ensuring that people have information, knowledge, resources, and opportunities to get food. National governments have the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. They must assist people who are not able to get adequate food on their own. In case the governments do not fulfil their obligations, people can take recourse to RTI to know what steps the government has taken to do so. With timely, relevant and valid information, they can defend, claim, and enforce their rights. It can also enhance the capacity of duty-bearers to fulfil their obligations regarding the right to food. To state an example, in India under the National Food Security Act, people are entitled to subsidised food grains. If they do not receive the food as promised in the law they can use RTI Act of India to find out how the grains are being distributed and the reasons for not providing them the food grains.
How do we use Right to Information legislation?
The steps described in the illustration above are applicable to Pakistan based on their RTI law. Source: The Express Tribune, Pakistan
To obtain information from the government or public body, the first step is to determine the information/record that is required.
Next is to identify the custodian ministry/department/public body which must be approached to obtain the required information.
Then send an application to the designated officer in the government department. In some countries, they are known as Public Information Officer. This is usually done in writing or electronically and along with a prescribed fee. This designated officer receives requests and provides information. In some instances, there are assistants designated especially in remote areas who receive applications and forward them to the designated officers.
Usually, there are no prescribed formats for applying for information and applications can be made on a blank sheet of paper. The applicant must include contact details, the name of the concerned government department/public authority, and details of the information sought.
Upon receiving the application, the designated officer must provide the information (after collecting the stipulated fee) or reject the application in case the information sought is listed in the exemptions section of the RTI law. The designated officer must inform the applicant about the calculation used to arrive at the fees to be paid. The laws provide that the fees must be reasonable.
In case the application is rejected the designated officer must communicate the reasons for the information seeker. He should also inform about the applicant’s right to appeal the decision, including details of the appellate authority.
RTI laws clearly define the timeframe within which information must be provided. Usually, it is within 20-30 days from the date of application. Failure to respond to an application within the timeframe is a deemed refusal and the applicant can move to the appellate process.
The appellate mechanism prescribed under most RTI laws consists of two appeals: in case the applicant does not get information or does not get it in the prescribed timeframe or is aggrieved by the decision of the designated officer. In such cases, he can file a first appeal with the appellate authority usually senior in rank within the same department. RTI Acts usually specify a time limit within which this appeal must be made.
Most RTI laws envisage an independent Information Commission as the final appellate authority. The general global trend is towards Information Commissions and Commissioners as oversight bodies. Their role includes: Receive/review appeals/complaints from requestors; order release of information (binding); monitor compliance especially proactive disclosure of information; order penalty on governments who have failed to provide information on request
Most RTI laws also provide for proactive disclosure of information where every public authority must take steps to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication, including the internet.
What are the challenges?
Though more than 110 countries today have adopted the RTI law, in the rest of the countries there is not enough political will to enact such legislation. Many countries have also failed to implement their laws effectively. As a result, many of the benefits associated with transparency, accountability and good governance have not been realised.
Governments continue to function in secrecy, especially where opaque bureaucratic culture is pervasive. Moreover, outdated and inefficient practices of storage and retrieval of information have led to poor implementation of the laws in any country. Hence full realization of anticipated benefits associated with access to information remains elusive. In many countries, the opaque bureaucratic culture is pervasive and very difficult to overcome. Moreover, often the information systems and archival practices are outdated and inefficient.
Where has it been successful?
Awareness about the law and the procedures, open government, and a good monitoring and oversight mechanism can ensure successful implementation of the RTI Act. There have been instances where ordinary people have used the Act to obtain benefits which have led to greater transparency and accountability in government. To illustrate this fact, here is a success story from India:
Struggle for pensions
Sumitra, a 73-year-old widow lives in one of the slums in Delhi. With no other source of income, she is wholly dependent on the meagre pension she receives under the old-age pension scheme of the government. However, in April 2012, she stopped getting her pension without any information from the concerned department. Without this money, she could not pay her rent and became homeless. In June 2013, she filed an application under the RTI Act seeking information on the status of her pension. Not having received proper information from the Public Information Officer (PIO) she filed a second appeal with the oversight body-Central Information Commission (CIC) in August 2013. Taking a strict view of the violation of the RTI Act the CIC awarded a compensation of Rs. 48,000 to Sumitra and imposed a penalty of Rs. 25,000 on the PIO.
Despite the public authority challenging the order of the CIC in the High Court, the Court finally awarded compensation to Sumitra matching it to the pension she had lost over the years. Her pension benefits were also reinstated. She could rent a small room again and thus a secure roof over her head.
 For a list of countries with RTI laws please visit: http://home.broadpark.no/~wkeim/foi-list.htm
 For details please visit: http://dfpd.nic.in/nfsa-act.htm
 For details please visit: http://rti.gov.in/webactrti.htm
 The RTI Act, a primer, Right to Food Campaign 2016
Hunger and Poverty are related issues, Global Issues, Anup Shah
Freedom of Information, Article 19
Regina Birner (2007): Improving Governance to eradicate hunger and poverty, 2020 FOCUS BRIEF on the World’s Poor and Hungry People, International Food Policy Research Institute.
Right to Food Campaign (2016): The RTI Act, a primer
About the Author:
Sohini Paul has worked in the development sector for more than two decades – during this time she focussed primarily on the issues of strengthening institutions of local self-government in India, capacity building of civil society, governance and advocacy, and land rights. She has also worked extensively on the right to information in India and in the South Asian countries. Currently, she works with the Civil Society Academy - in the roles of facilitating, course coordinating, mentoring, and networking. She is based in New Delhi, India.
Would you like to give feedback to the Civil Society Academy, or are you interested in our courses or our support?
Please contact me: Sohini Paul