Maldives Parliament endorses Access to Information Bill
Maldives Parliament endorses Access to Information Bill
Maldives – a country situated in South Asia – comprises of about 1,200 islands grouped into atolls. About 200 islands are permanently inhabited by a population of 310,000.2 With 97% of the population being literate, Maldives has the highest rate of literacy in the region. According to 2005 estimates, only 16% of the population lives below the national poverty line which is much less than the incidence of poverty in countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.3 83% of the population has access to improved drinking water sources and the under-5 mortality rate is 28 per 1000 live births. In 2009, Maldives was ranked 95 on UNDP’s Human Development Index placing it in the category of countries with medium human development.4 Public expenditure comprises 64% of the gross domestic product and close to 70% of the government’s revenue is spent on the public sector wage bill.5 At the time of democratic transition of Maldives in 2008- 09, the national debt stood at 33% of the GDP.6
Most politicians and bureaucrats say that despite experiencing relatively higher levels of human development compared to its neighbours in the region, Maldives was not an open society under the three-decade long administration of President Mamoon Abdul Gayoom. The current President Mohamed Nasheed stated that the previous regime was characterised by several instances of corruption and human rights abuses.7 Prior to 2003, it is said that the media was completely under the control of the government with little freedom for free and unbiased reporting despite the right to freedom of speech and expression being guaranteed by the Constitution in place then.8 However the exercise of democratic reform initiated by the Gayoom regime in its final years is considered to have given some impetus to freedom of expression. Censorship of the media was reduced considerably by the year 2006, thanks to pressure from civil society and opposition parties. However, information from government bodies was disseminated by their public relations officers only on a need to know basis. The previous Constitution did not contain any reference to the people’s right to information.
RIGHT TO INFORMATION (RTI) AS A PART OF DEMOCRATIC REFORM
As part of the process of initiating democratic reforms in 2007, the then Minister for Information and Legal Reforms had drafted a Bill on the right to information. This Bill was closely modelled on the access laws of the United Kingdom and Canada, and was drafted with the assistance of Article XIX, an international resource organisation working on freedom of expression and access to information.9 However, the Bill could not pass muster in the People’s Majlis – it fell short of majority support by one vote.10
Despite this debacle, the Minister for Information and Legal Reforms took the initiative of converting the Bill into a set of Regulations applicable to the Executive only. These Regulations were notified by a Presidential Decree on 3 May 2008 on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. The objectives of the Regulations were to:
– Provide Maldivians with the right to access information held by government administrative offices;
– Specify the situations and conditions under which information shall not be disclosed; and
– Encourage government departments and offices to publicise information about their working more frequently.
The Government gave itself a lead time of eight months to prepare for the implementation of these Regulations, which were to become fully operational in January 2009.11 There was a provision to appoint an Information Commissioner in these Regulations, whose role would have been to guide the implementation of this process and adjudicate over access disputes. However, in response to pressure from Opposition parties ahead of the Presidential elections, the responsibility of recruiting civil servants was transferred from the President’s Office to a newly created Civil Service Commission. This caused hurdles in the appointment of the Information Commissioner.
THE TIDE OF DEMOCRATIC CHANGE
Mr. Mohamed Nasheed was elected President in the first multiparty elections held in 2008 thanks to pressure from opposition parties, civil society and the media. In August that year, the People’s Majlis adopted a new Constitution which not only guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, but also the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.12 It is notable that the freedom to acquire information is not restricted to citizens only. It is available to every person irrespective of nationality or any other identity marker. This constitutional guarantee therefore provides the foundation on which an open government can be built in the Maldives, even as it facilitates people’s access to information held by public bodies.
The newly elected President pursued the process of democratic reform more vigorously than under the Gayoom regime, and transparency in government seemed to be high on his agenda of priorities. With the dissolution of the Ministry of Information and Legal Reforms, the subject of RTI was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs even as the Department of Information was absorbed by the Ministry for Tourism, Arts and Culture.13 The responsibility for overseeing the implementation of RTI Regulations was placed with an RTI Cell specially created within the Ministry of Home Affairs. This arrangement is likely to continue until the appointment of the Information Commissioner.
Upon completing a hundred days in office, President Nasheed highlighted two major actions taken by his government for promoting transparency in the document entitled “First Hundred Days of Democratic Government”.14 These included the appointment of information officers in all government offices for the purpose of providing information to people, and increasing transparency in their working.15 The government also made a serious effort to train Ministers, senior bureaucrats and newly appointed information officers to effectively implement the provisions of the RTI Regulations. According to a senior officer associated with the RTI Cell, till date, more than 1,450 government officers have been trained to implement RTI Regulations within their jurisdictions, and have also been sensitised about the importance of RTI to the democratic setup of Maldives.
A NEW LEGISLATIVE INITIATIVE ON RTI
After the general elections held in May 2009, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Alliance formed a coalition government. The MDP Alliance had included the promise of providing access to information to all people as a long term goal (1-5 years) in its election manifesto, as part of its agenda of democratic governance and the establishment of the rule of law and justice.16Subsequently in November 2009, the Attorney General of the new government tabled the Right to Information Bill 2009 in the People’s Majlis. Closely modelled on the existing RTI Regulations, it was initially referred to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs for detailed deliberations over its provisions. Subsequently the Bill has been transferred to the Standing Committee on Social Affairs as that Committee has oversight over the Ministry of Home Affairs.17 Senior representatives of government and members of parliament are hopeful that the RTI law will be enacted this year itself.
CHALLENGES TO IMPLEMENTING RTI IN THE MALDIVES
STATE OF PREPAREDNESS OF THE LEGISLATURE
According to members of parliament, who have had long years of experience as lawmakers in Maldives, a big challenge is to build the capacity of first time members of the People’s Majlis to participate in the process of law-making in an informed manner. As Maldives is going through a process of democratic consolidation, the legislative agenda of the People’s Majlis is heavy and several members are not yet well versed in the processes of law-making. More than 150 Bills are pending before the People’s Majlis as it is engaged in the task of harmonising existing legislation with the new Constitution and establishing a governance framework underpinned by the ideals of democracy and the principle of rule of law. The RTI Bill is only one of several important pieces of legislation awaiting the approval of the Majlis. It is hoped that the provisions of the Bill as well as the recommendations for change made by civil society will be discussed at length at the committee stage before it is taken up in the plenary session.
STATE OF PREPAREDNESS OF THE EXECUTIVE
A few senior officers revealed that there is a lack of adequate preparedness in the bureaucracy to implement an RTI law despite the training initiatives of the new government. A large majority of the members of the bureaucracy continue to be unaware of the requirements of RTI Regulations. In addition to this knowledge deficit, there are systemic challenges as well. As the government is going through a process of large scale restructuring, ministries and departments are being abolished and their duties and responsibilities reassigned to others. Instances of loss or misplacement of documents of the abolished offices during this transitional process are not rare. Existing departments will have difficulties when people start asking for information about the activities of the abolished offices.
The communications system within government departments may also prove to be an obstacle in the initial stages of the implementation of the RTI law. For example, some senior officers opined that the rank of information officers designated under the Regulations (Permanent Secretaries) is so high that they may not actually possess all information created by different wings and sections of their department. They would therefore need to consult with their subordinates, Junior Press Officers, who perform the role of Communications Officers. Currently these officers handle the dissemination of information related to the working of their departments to the media and citizens in general. A senior representative of the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports however drew attention to the e-communications initiative of the Government that is likely to facilitate better communication within and between departments in the near future. It is hoped that this new system will facilitate easier access to the department’s records for designated information officers so that decisions regarding grant of access may be made quickly.
Similarly, the restructuring of government offices has slowed down the progress made with regard to proactive disclosure of information required under RTI Regulations. For example, a senior representative of the Malé Municipality explained that due to the organizational restructuring exercise that was underway in the organisation, very little information had been uploaded on its website. However, the officer was hopeful that with the finalisation of standard operating procedures for the Municipality, the task of updating the website would be taken up.
STATE OF AWARENESS AMONGST MALDIVIANS
Representatives of government and civil society were unanimous in their view that knowledge about RTI is not widespread amongst Maldivians. This may prove to be a hindrance to the successful implementation of the RTI law. Even though the RTI Cell has initiated the airing of radio programmes on the significance of RTI and the provisions contained in the RTI Regulations, knowledge levels, especially in distant atolls, are said to be poor. Despite the operationalisation of the RTI Regulations in January 2009, very few Maldivians have sought information under this instrument. For example, a senior representative of the Malé Municipality confirmed that only a couple of requests for information are received every week. Often the requests are for information about land-related matters. Where it is possible to give the information readily, the Municipality provides it on demand. However, where it is necessary to search for records and documents, the Municipality asks the requestor to fill out the application form prescribed in the Regulations. Further, due to inadequate training on RTI, the process of decision-making on whether or not to disclose the requested information is often delayed. The Information Officer is required to consult laws and regulations related to land matters in order to check whether any restrictions on disclosure are applicable. However, initiatives have been taken to provide to all senior officers a compilation of all laws and regulations being implemented through the Municipality to enable them to discharge their duties better. A set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the services provided by the Municipality is likely to be uploaded on the website shortly. On a different note, a representative of the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports confirmed that they had received a request for information about the travel expenses of Ministers from an opposition party. However these kinds of requests are few and far between.
Some senior officers expressed concern about the manner in which people are using the RTI. For example, a senior officer of the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports reported that people tend to use the RTI application forms to write long letters, which are often in the nature of complaints or grievances. A senior representative of the Ministry of Housing, Transport and Environment expressed frustration at receiving more than a hundred letters seeking information from one person in the course of a month. The officer strongly believed that the information seeker was only creating a fuss with no specific purpose in mind. However he also stated that the media frequently approached his ministry for information regarding its decisions and activities and as there exists a friendly relationship between the media and the government, providing access to information was not posing any major problems.
Maldives is currently engaged in the process of democratic consolidation and a restructuring of government. Despite this onerous task, the Government has placed transparency high on its agenda. The introduction of the RTI Bill in the People’s Majlis is an indication of its seriousness with regard to fulfilling the MDP Alliance’s electoral promise of transparency in administration. This Bill itself needs several major changes in order to match international standards of RTI legislation. A great amount of effort is required to build the capacity of the bureaucracy to provide people with access to information in real time. There is also an urgent need to build capacity on the management and maintenance of public records in order to facilitate easy access under the RTI law. Building the capacity of the bureaucracy and the administration to deliver on the promise of transparency is therefore the need of the hour. Proactive dissemination of information that Maldivians require on a day to day basis may also need to be prioritised so that their need for making formal requests for information is reduced. Mass awareness raising programmes must be initiated to educate Maldivians about their right to information and its responsible use.
Venkatesh Nayak and Sanchita Bakshi1
1This note is based on the authors’ impressions of some crucial aspects of the state of the right to information in Maldives. A major source of data for this note is one-to-one interviews conducted with senior officers of the Maldives administration and senior politicians in early 2010. The authors have also looked at select secondary literature about Maldives available on the internet. None of the interviewees have been named as the interviews were conducted in confidence. The authors do not claim that this note represents the official picture of the state of the right to information in Maldives. The authors thank Drushya Sridhar, Intern, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) for her research inputs.
2See Asian Development Bank and Maldives Fact Sheet, 2009, pp. 1. Available at: http:// www.adb.org/Documents/Fact_Sheets/MLD.pdf.
4Human Development Report 2009, UNDP. Maldives Country Report. Available at: http:/ /hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/country_fact_sheets/cty_fs_MDV.html.
5Address by President Mohamed Nasheed, at the inaugural event of the Sixteenth South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, 28 April 2010. Available at: http://www.sixteenthsaarcsummit.bt/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/maldives.pdf.
6Ibid. According to President Nasheed, the budgetary deficit has been brought down to 28% due to austerity measures initiated by his regime.
8Mohamed Jawad, Right to Information in the Maldives. Paper presented at the Right to Information Programme for Asia Region organised by the Institute of Secretariat Training and Management, New Delhi with support from the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, October 2009 (unpublished).
9CHRI submitted detailed comments on this draft Bill and suggested several improvements including strengthening the provisions of voluntary disclosure of information by public bodies.
10The people’s Majlis is the supreme legislative authority in the country and is one of the three principal organs of government. From http://www.majlis.gov.mv/en/majlis-at-a-glance.
11Under the constitutional scheme of Maldives, regulations notified by the Executive apply only to government bodies. Therefore private bodies were left out of the coverage of the RTI Regulations.
12Article 29: “Everyone has the freedom to acquire and impart knowledge information and learning”. Available at: http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/programs/ai/rti/international/ laws_papers/maldives/constitution_of_maldives.pdf. The new Constitution also restored the powers of the President to create posts required for the purpose of fulfilling his responsibilities.
13Information obtained through an interview with a senior officer assigned to the President’s office.
14Amongst other things, the section on good governance in this document mentions the following achievements: “Information Officers at government offices has been trained (sic). They were trained on how to acquire and impart information in a more transparent way. An information session for Ministers and other senior government officials on how the government’s policy on acquiring and imparting of information was held.” See: http://www.presidencymaldives.gov.mv/downloads/100-days-en.pdf.
15According to a senior officer in the RTI Section, all Permanent Secretaries have been designated as the Information Officers of their departments.
16“Provide access to information to facilitate social and economic development as well as self-sufficiency among the residents of the atolls.” Aneh Dhivehi Rajje: The Other Maldives, Manifesto of the Maldivian Democratic Party Alliance, 2008-2013. Available at: http:// www.presidencymaldives.gov.mv/downloads/menifesto-en.pdf.
17The authors have recently prepared a detailed critique of the contents of the RTI Bill with several recommendations for improvement in order to bring it up to par with the international best practice standards of RTI legislation. This critique has been shared with influential members of parliament, senior representatives of government, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives and civil society organisations in Maldives. The critique is available at: http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/programs/ai/rti/international/laws_... chri_analysis_maldives_rti_bill.pdf.