Monday 22nd Jul 2024
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Right to information

Information Denied: The Government's Tactics to Suppress the Right to Information in the Maldives

The Right to Information Act of the Maldives, passed in 2014, was enacted with the aim of granting citizens the right to request information from any government institution. This act was intended to promote transparency and accountability in the workings of government by providing citizens with the tools necessary to access information. However, the reality of its implementation has been vastly different from its intended purpose.
As with any Right to Information Act, this act also contains exceptions, such as information relating to national security or personal information of individuals. However, the government has been using these exceptions as blanket excuses for withholding information, frequently citing them to evade disclosure even in cases where it would not be justified. In addition to this, the government has been employing a multitude of tactics to undermine the RTI act.
One of the tactics used by the government is to delay the response to RTI requests. According to the RTI act, state authorities have 21 days to respond to RTI requests, and they may request an additional 14 days in exceptional circumstances. However, the government often takes the full 35 days to respond, even in cases where they eventually decide not to disclose the information. This delay tactic is intended to discourage citizens from submitting RTIs by making the process cumbersome and time-consuming.
Another tactic used by the government is to challenge the decisions of the Information Commissioner in the High Court of the Maldives. The Information Commissioner is tasked with reviewing cases where state authorities refuse to disclose information or where the information provided is not accurate. The Information Commissioner has the authority to hold public hearings and to order the disclosure of information. However, when the Information Commissioner orders the disclosure of information, the government often refuses to comply and appeals to the High Court. Given the government's control over the judiciary, these cases often remain unresolved for years, with only procedural issues being addressed in court. One such example is the case submitted by The Maldives Journal after the Ministry of Defence refused to disclose the number of Indian soldiers stationed in the Maldives. Despite being submitted in 2020, the case has yet to be heard on its substantive merits, with only two hearings having been held to address procedural issues.
Finally, the government sometimes refuses to comply with the rulings of the Information Commissioner altogether. There have been instances where the government has refused to acknowledge the Information Commissioner's ruling to disclose information, even when the ruling has been upheld by the High Court. One example of this is the case in which The Maldives Journal requested information on political appointees from the President's Office. Despite the Information Commissioner ordering the President's Office to disclose the information, the request was refused, and the government has yet to comply.
In stark contrast to the actions of the Maldives government, many countries around the world have implemented RTI acts that promote transparency and accountability in government. In these countries, RTI requests are processed in a timely manner, and decisions by Information Commissioners are respected and implemented. For instance, India has a robust RTI act that has been praised for its ability to bring about transparency and accountability in government.
Despite the promise of a transparent government by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih upon assuming office, the government's paralysis of the RTI act in the Maldives highlights the lack of transparency in its operations. This not only violates the spirit of the RTI act but also undermines the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.