The Finance Ministry has given an irresponsible response in the right to information (RTI) request filed seeking closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage of the ministry in relation to the allegations that outsiders went to the ministry and corrected the tax rates in the budget in the eleventh hour.
The Annapurna Post daily had published a news report claiming that former nayab subba (non gazetted first class employee of the government) Raghunath Ghimire and others had gone to the ministry at the time of finalizing the budget May 28 night and changed tax rates.
Secretary of the Consumer Rights Protection Forum Nepal Jay Prasad Ghimire had filed an RTI request with the ministry on June 28 seeking CCTV footage from four May 28 afternoon till six the next morning when the budget was given final shape.
“We inform you accordingly as we have been told in writing that the footage remains only for 13 days on the basis of CCTV and capacity (sic), and the record gradually is erased after that,” the ministry responded to Ghimire on Sunday.
The Home Ministry’s guidelines about installation and operation of CCTV requires footage of CCTV cameras be kept safe for at least three months and adds that the district administration office concerned can investigate about the CCTV footage.
The footage of May 28, therefore, should be kept safe at least until August 28.
The written response of the ministry that the footage cannot be found has raised suspicions about Minister Sharma’s intentions.
CPN-UML lawmakers have been demanding his resignation alleging that outsiders corrected the tax rates in the budget in the eleventh hour. But he has been refuting allegations that unauthorized persons prepared the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“All works have been done in an authorized manner. I want to make it clear that I have prepared the budget being accountable to the responsibility in capacity of a finance minister. I want to clarify that the allegations about unauthorized persons preparing the budget are false and misleading,” Sharma said speaking in the House of Representatives (HoR) on June 14.
Sharma had an opportunity to disprove the allegations by providing the footage if no unauthorized person had entered the ministry room while finalizing the budget. He also had moral responsibility to keep the CCTV footage safe for possible investigation.
But he chose otherwise and the ministry’s irresponsible response about the CCTV footage has further raised doubts instead of dispelling the allegations.
“Finance Ministry officials can be punished in accordance to violation of criminal laws if the ministry didn’t keep CCTV footage safe as required by the Home Ministry guidelines,” Chairman of Freedom Forum Tara Nath Dahal told Setopati.
Technological experts claim that the footage can be retrieved even if it has been deleted. An expert with Nepal Police says how long such footage remains depends on the capacity of hard disk and the system installed at the place.
“Files saved digitally can be retrieved but it should not be overwritten. Retrieval becomes difficult if there is overwriting of data on the disk,” the police expert adds.
The expert reveals that CCTV systems installed at home are of lower capacity and the footage is automatically overwritten after a few days. “But the storage system of the CCTV cameras installed at the Finance Ministry should be of higher capacity.”
An Information Technology (IT) head of an office under the Finance Ministry concurred and told Setopati that the Finance Ministry does not have resource constraints like other government offices may have, and there should be no reason why it would install an inferior system that can keep footage safe for only 13 days and not for at least three months as required by the Home Ministry guidelines.
Freedom Forum Chair Dahal said that the issue should have been probed and the government and the House should have corrected things once the issue was raised in the House. “Either the finance minister has defied the House or the House has lost its capacity or the speaker has not taken initiative,” Dahal added.
Speaker Agni Sapkota is from CPN (Maoist Center) like Minister Sharma.
Dahal argued that the Finance Ministry cannot kill the RTI rights of a citizen once the footage was sought through an RTI request. “The ministry lied saying there is no information. Chronology of developments establish that the CCTV footage was safe at the time but the ministry destroyed it in the intervening period. This has further raised suspicions against Minister Sharma.”
He revealed that the National Information Commission can investigate whether the footage has been lost as claimed by the ministry. “The National Information Commission can check whether the footage is safe or not. This will show whether the ministry lied or not.”
He added that the Finance Ministry officials can be punished if the footage has been deleted.