A right to information (RTI) petition filed by an advocacy organisation and an order from the Rastriya Suchana Aayog later let the cat out of the bag this week.
The Finance Ministry which had earlier refused to disclose the list of VAT defaulters to parliament's Public Accounts Committee citing defaulters' right to confidentiality was forced to make the complete list public.
The list just provides names of firms, some of which are being investigated while others have since been given a clean chit. There is no information about the amount embezzled. The ministry hasn't even released the original investigation report where there is more detail. Nonetheless, the decision marks a watershed in the history of RTI in Nepal which, although touted as being the most progressive in the region, has never really been tested.
The general perception about RTI being solely the domain of journalism has also been broken by this incident. In fact, it has shown how citizens should take charge of their own rights because media is not always the safest bet. Fearing reprisal by advertisers, a large section of media previously hushed up the issue. When they should have proactively investigated it after an online portal first brought out the scam, the mainstream media played it down.
When there should have been pressure on the ministry to release more details, there was deafening silence in the big newspapers. The gap was filled by social media networks and blogs, which do not face advertiser pressure. However, internet sites are also not bound by defamation and libel restrictions, which means irresponsible anonymous postings can destroy reputations of the innocents as well.
People have criticised the disclosure of the list saying it harms business. No doubt, all firms on the list should not have been lumped together, and care should have been taken to ensure that the investigation process was not influenced. But if anyone is to be blamed for the lackadaisical and incomplete release of information, it is the ministry itself. There is no point condemning the RTI petition. In fact we should be demanding clearer and more detailed information. It was the suspicion that then Finance Minsiter Bharat Mohan Adhikari was protecting fraudsters in high place, for example, that forced Finance Secretary Rameswor Khanal to resign earlier this year.
On a recent lecture to Kathmandu journalists, The Hindu's investigative journalist P Sainath talked about how corporate media has "a structural compulsion to lie". This may be why we need citizen journalists who operate outside the incestuous network of business, politics, bureaucracy and the media. The mainstream press has time and again failed the test when it chooses to prioritise the concerns and interests of big business rather the public's interest. It is no wonder then that the big media which did not speak for the taxpayers' right to know is now bending over its back for the defaulters' right to confidentiality. Media's standard format of covering such stories is making them as vague as possible and withholding information.
The mainstream media should now be using the right to information petitions to uncover wrong-doing in high places. We should be holding politicians accountable by demanding information on their sources of funding, or asking NGOs to produce their balance sheets, demanding the list of human rights cases the government has decided to dismiss.
Barring few sensitive areas tied to defense and national security, in a democracy the public has the right to know information that directly affects it. In fact, governments should proactively provide all information relating to public offices in easily accessible and understandable format.
This is not just a theoretical exercise. Transparency is the biggest safeguard of democracy, information improves governance, and better governance lifts living standards.
Guilty until proven innocent, PAAVAN MATHEMA
The names of alleged VAT evaders are public. Now what?