The right to information, meaning the people’s right to know or accessibility to information derives its origin from Sweden. Historically, Sweden was the first country in the world to adopt a “Freedom of Information Act” in 1776. However, the democratic changeover in the Central and Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 had heightened the urge for recognizing the right to information as a human right. Successive democratic movements in other parts of the world, later on, had given a notable impetus to the right to information campaigns worldwide.

Until today, as many as hundred countries all over the world have adopted legislation on access to information which is certainly a milestone reached to secure people’s right to know. The political nature and context of this right entails the power of the people to participate directly or indirectly in the establishment or administration of the government, and, at this point the free flow of information deserves paramount recognition in a democratic polity. This view is, however, nothing new. James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and co-author of the First Amendment to the American Constitution observed in 1822:

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And people, who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

At this backdrop, almost every democratic state took the issue in serious consideration and held meaningful constitutional debates to gauge opinions and assess the rationale behind such a right. With this move, the right to seek information from government bodies has secured its place in many democratic constitutions. Interestingly, in some democratic states this right has placed indirect constitutional anchoring. This is due to the fact that, the awarding of constitutional status to the right to information is vividly reflected in the courts’ interpretation of other recognized rights in various judgments, especially in the case of right to freedom of speech and expression.

In 1982, a petition was filed with the Supreme Court of India requiring that all correspondence between the Minister of Justice and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court concerning the appointment of Supreme Court Justice be disclosed. The government argued that the discretionary power regarding exposure (or non-exposure) of the respective documents remains in its hands. The court, however, rejected this position, thereby establishing the precedent that:

“The concept of an open Government is the direct emanation from the right to know which seems to be implicit in the right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. Hence, revelation of information held by Government must be the rule and secrecy an exception justified only where the strictest requirement of public interest requires.”

Hence, the nexus between the freedom of expression and the right to information does not always remain confined within the periphery of academic discourse; rather the exercise of this right appears in the societal domain with practical implications. Notably, access to relevant information enhances the capacity of individuals, interest groups and organizations to actively take part in political debates. In the same way, deciding issues on public agenda and the very prospect of placing those issues on the agenda is firmly plugged to their ability to obtain necessary information.

Speaking of its formal entrance in the jurisprudence of international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 incorporated an article referring to the “right to seek, receive and impart information” while identical wording appears in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966. The provisions of these articles, however; fall short to grasp the wider scope and meaning of such a right and to outline the obligations of the duty bearers in guaranteeing its effective implementation. The international courts, tribunals and expert bodies, therefore, made extensive elaboration to these provisions from different viewpoints.

In line with this approach, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on the issue of the right to information. The annual report prepared by the Special Rapporteur and submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1988, rightly explained:

“The right to seek and receive information is not simply a converse of the right to freedom of opinion and expression but a freedom on its own which imposes a positive obligation on the states to ensure access to information, particularly with regard to the information held by Government in all types of storage and retrieval system”

Prompted by the longstanding and combined efforts spurred by local NGOs, civil society organizations, media, law experts, Bangladesh finally entered into the regime of access to information law in 2009. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2009, is therefore, being considered as one of the landmark legislations of Bangladesh having the potential to serve the poor, disadvantaged people and improve their condition. It is in the sense that, Right to Information Act, through free flow of information, would work as an important tool to restore transparency and accountability in service delivery system at the Union Council level which is the lowest tier of local government system and closely connected with the people living in rural areas. In addition, a pro-bono approach in RTI Act implementation would help the marginalized people establish their rightful claims and reap the benefits of government services without facing any difficulties.

However, in respect of the proper implementation of the law, a plethora of challenges has appeared. A survey conducted by the Right to Information Forum on completion of two years of RTI Act reveals that the supply of information and effective delivery arrangements depend on the demand of information. But as a matter of fact, a considerable portion of the respondents were found to be unaware about the RTI Act and more surprisingly those who are aware were mostly reluctant in using the RTI Act due to its associated hassles.

19H [1600x1200]

The authorities in most cases seemed less willing to provide full information or in some cases applicants receive incorrect information. The lack of awareness among the people about the legislative framework has been identified as one of the major challenges. Furthermore, absence of digital information management system, narrow level of obligation to recruit Information Officers (IO), lack of sufficient training for existing RTI officials, lack of voluntary adoption of disclosure policy by the concerned organizations and the culture of secrecy in government affairs are hindering its progress to a great extent.

Though the Information Commission held a number of capacity building workshops, public awareness and outreach events but these efforts proved to be insufficient to deal with the increasing number of challenges. In order to revamp the present circumstances, the Commission should be furnished with sufficient financial, technical and human resources and be allowed to carry out its functions independently.

Amidst a long practiced culture of secrecy in governmental functions, which sidesteps the citizens in darkness about issues touching their legitimate interest, the adoption of RTI Act has indeed emerged like sunshine to lighten such darkness. There is no doubt that merely enacting law is not adequate. Successful implementation of it would largely depend on governments’ political commitment to make the law truly beneficial for the people. However, it can be concluded by saying that, in its totality, not only the government but also the NGOs, civil society, media outlets and the people at large should share the responsibility to complement the government efforts in every possible way.

Md. Abdur Razzak thanks Farah Diba and Nousheen Zoarder for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.


Md. Abdur Razzak, “Right To Information: Let The Sunshine Lighten The Dark” (DHLR Blog, 25 October 2014)

People reacted to this story.
Show comments Hide comments
Comments to: Right to Information: Let the Sunshine Lighten the Dark
  • October 26, 2014

    Insightful read!

  • October 27, 2014

    Good one Razzak! RTI is such a great piece of law but we fail to use it for our ignorance. Thanks for writing on it.


Write a response

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *