Lhakpa Quendren 

The Anti-Corruption Commission’s (ACC) model public service code of conduct recently raised the eyebrows of many people, especially in the media for restricting public servants from sharing information.

One of the aspects of the model code says that public servants could face disciplinary or criminal sanctions if they share official information, including non-confidential, without authorisation.

However, ACC said that the model code is aimed at ensuring accessibility to official information responsibly and quality and responsible public reporting through the proper mechanism.

ACC Commissioner, Jamtsho, said that the requirement of sharing the information through authorised person is to ensure quality reporting with accurate, authentic, and complete information for meaningful civic engagement in the governance system.

“Any engagement based on inaccurate, false, and incomplete information would only promote mistrust and compromise the rule of law and public order,” he said.

According to the Commission, authorised public servants can be the media spokesperson, media and communication officers, or other relevant officials who have an overall understanding and custody of the information.

The authorised public servants would facilitate sharing of official information that is determined to be publicly accessible on an ad-hoc basis or systematically for the planned release of official information.

“The media and public have a right to demand official information through authorised public servants and must strive for positive civic engagement and contribute to our collective effort to fight against corruption,” he added.

In other countries, Jamtsho said, access to official information is regulated by law on right to information and secrecy. “There is no such law that regulates the access to information and right to information in Bhutan.”

He said that anti-corruption experts around the world consider code of conduct as a successful strategy in the fight against corruption as it provides the aspect of prevention, education, and enforcement, which compliments and reinforces each other.

“The model code is developed incorporating international best practices and standards. For instance, EU model code and international code of conduct for public officials,” Jamtsho said.

He said that article 10 of the Vienna Convention, which is being persistently promoted by Transparency International, also calls for the State parties to adopt procedures and regulate access to official information.

“Anti-corruption professionals like us fail to understand what makes some people, including media, think the model code promotes corruption,” he said.

He said that the model code is not intended to impair the Constitutional right to freedom of speech. “It is, rather, intended to complement the duty to exercise freedom of speech responsibly. “No constitutional rights are absolute. All the fundamental rights are accorded with limitations.”

He added that it is also important to know that voluntary regulation of the conduct of a public servant by a code of conduct cannot replace legal standards and external controls.

While corruption would occur despite subscription to a code of conduct, ACC hopes that the implementation of this model code would improve the ethical climate in public service.

With the implementation of the model code, ACC expects to foster a culture of accountability in public service delivery.

“We will evaluate the effectiveness of this arrangement and, accordingly, make necessary interventions,” Jamtsho said.

Section 44(h) of the Civil Service Act 2010 also requires civil servants to maintain confidentiality of all facts and information discovered in the course of duty, both while in the service and after separation.