Assembly: Opposition MPs yesterday stood against introducing the Information Communications and Media (ICM) Bill 2016, saying that they wanted the Right to Information (RTI) Bill to be tabled first.

As soon as information and communications minister DN Dhungyel introduced the ICM Bill in the National Assembly, Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi asked the government if the Bill covered provisions pertaining to right to information. “Otherwise, we’ll have to think over supporting the Bill,” he said.

Thirty MPs raised their hands when Speaker Jigme Zangpo said the House would decide by a show of hands whether or not it will deliberate on the Bill. No opposition members raised their hands.

Dorji Wangdi said that the RTI Bill was one of the election pledges of the government. “The RTI Bill would take a backseat if the ICM Bill is introduced now,” he said.

However, the government was of the view that it has played its part to formulate an RTI law. The RTI Bill 2014 was passed by the Assembly in 2014, but the National Council (NC) did not deliberate the Bill, as the upper House did not get a presentation on the Bill from the information and communications ministry.

The opposition is of the view that the RTI Bill is now dead and that it can be introduced as a new Bill. Two years have elapsed since the NC refused to deliberate on the Bill and returned it to the Assembly.

Foreign minister Damcho Dorji said the RTI Bill was not only the government’s election pledge but also a fundamental right of citizens. “We haven’t forgotten the promise and the Assembly did pass the Bill,” he said.

“I’m disheartened that the opposition is not willing to support the ICM Bill,” he said, adding that the opposition should play a constructive role. “Both the government and opposition should serve the country’s interest,” he said.

However, the government did not offer any plans on how it would go about the dead RTI Bill. The information and communications minister did not speak on the RTI although the question was directed at him.

Inquiring about the status of the RTI Bill, Opposition Leader (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said one of the main issues facing the media was the lack of an RTI Act. He said the government had played the RTI card when it was in the opposition and during the election campaign.

The ICM Bill is about regulating the media and ICT industry in the country. However, (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said there aren’t much media-related issues, except for the lack of an RTI law.

The Panbang MP said that the opposition did not raise the issue for political mileage, but for the nation’s interest. “We don’t mean that the ICM Bill is not important,” he clarified.

According to him, it was the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC) that ruined the opportunity to have an RTI Act. He said MoIC officials failed to show up for a presentation of the RTI Bill to the NC although the Prime Minister and the MoIC minister were reminded about the need to do so.

“The government failed to failed to show up, because of which the NC did not deliberate on it,” he said.

Health Minister Tandin Wangchuk said: “It seems like the opposition doesn’t want to let the government function smoothly.” He said the ministers have been going to the NC to answer any concern whenever there is a need.

Education Minister Norbu Wangchuk said it was not the right way for the opposition to raise the issue. “The issue could have been raised as a motion or in a Question and Answer session.”

The opposition leader said it was important that such a debate took place in the House. “Otherwise, there is no need for us to sit in the House,” he said, adding that the responsibility to solve the issue falls on the government of the day.

“Please don’t say that whatever the opposition says is for political mileage and whatever the government says is for the national interest,” (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said.

The Speaker referred the ICM Bill to the legislative committee for review, and asked the committee to examine if provisions related to RTI can be incorporated in the Bill. The committee will come up with recommendations in the upcoming summer session.

Lyonpo DN Dhungyel said the Bill was tabled mainly because the existing Act of 2006 had to be revised in the face of changing times. The Bill seeks to repeal the BICMA Act 2006.

The Bill will realign and separate responsibilities of the government and the Bhutan Information Communications and Media Authority (BICMA).

Overlapping mandates of the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC) and BICMA have often led to confusion. This Bill is also expected to allow functional and regulatory autonomy of the authority.

The Bill also aims to address deficiencies in the BICMA Act 2006 resulting from rapid technological changes in the ICT and media landscape, as well as in the socio-economic and political environments.

MB Subba