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New Government’s Newest Milestone

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The Right to Information Bill

Raises many hopes and some fears

On 20 February the set task for the government according to its 100 Day program will be introducing to parliament the much awaited and fought for Right to Information (RTI) Bill. While previous attempts were made by a handful of Sri Lankan politicians to engage the parliament in introducing such a bill, it failed in two instances making Sri Lanka, along with Afghanistan the only two SAARC countries not to enact legislation giving its citizens the right to request information pertaining to actions of the government.

If therefore it is in fact for good governance that the new regime is gunning for, it is vital that it understands that freedom of information is a key component of transparent and accountable government.

In a post conflict society, establishing transparency in the public sector is a daunting, if not an overwhelming task. Therefore RTI laws can play a major role in achieving this target while ensuring good governance in a society.

Accusations have been many regarding governmental bodies being rife with corruption, nepotism and dominated by political control, while their policy making processes are often shrouded in secrecy, all of which can ideally be rectified by the introduction of RTI laws.

Experts in conflict resolution often cite inadequate or inaccurate information as potential sources of conflict. Assuming that this is true such RTI legislation can in a post conflict society ensure a better functioning of democracy with more engaged citizens. It also can nurture a culture of tolerance, openness, honesty, and transparency, which provides a safeguard against corruption and oppressive governmental power. All of this can presumably lead to the creation and maintenance of a peaceful and stable society.

Right to Information
The right to access information held by public bodies is often referred to as ‘right to information’, and has been recognized in international law as a fundamental human right. Over the years, this right has gradually been recognized as part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive, and disseminate information.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is a formally binding legal treaty endorsed by over 160 countries, including Sri Lanka, which signed it in 1980, guarantees the freedom of expression and information.
Sri Lanka therefore is under an obligation to enact RTI laws despite failing to do so in the years that have lapsed despite repeated promises by previous governments to look into the matter.

RTI Draft Bill
According to the government, proposed draft bill which is to be presented to the cabinet was released last week to certain parties, mainly party leaders and civil society groups for review. The draft is to then be presented in parliament on February 20 after necessary amendments according to the feedback received.

Minister of Plantation Industries Lakshman Kiriella, sitting in for Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne last week at the Cabinet press briefing said this was done to ensure that the bill can be passed by parliament without much opposition as any suggested amendments can be done prior to presenting it perhaps showing the government’s interest in getting the law passed. The current promise of the government is to pass the bill within three weeks after its introduction.

First, any RTI law must be guided by the principle of maximum disclosure to which the draft conforms stating that every person will have the right to access official information in the possession of any public authority. That is subject to of course to certain needed limitations. 

Second principle is that, public institutions should be obligated to publish and widely disseminate documents of significant public interest. According to the presented document, Ministers along with the President if he so holds a Minister’s position should publish an annual report with particulars relating to the Ministry. It also states that these copies must be available for public inspection and copies should be issued for a fee.

Third, public bodies should promote the principles of open government and public education, including informing the public of its right to access information.

Fourth, any exceptions to disclosure should be clearly and narrowly drawn. According to the Chief Executive Officer of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) Sukumar Rockwood, while the draft has limitations on certain information on state security and privacy, those limitations are nevertheless needed.

Fifth, all public bodies must establish open, accessible internal procedures and systems to ensure the public’s right to receive information, rapidly and fairly.

The draft thus provides for a RTI commission to be set up under the 19th amendment to the constitution. The five member commission will work as the governing body in matters regarding information and according to the document information officers will also be appointed to all government institutions to handle requests for information regarding that particular institution.

Finally, there should be a presumption in favor of public meetings of governmental bodies, protection for whistleblowers and a prioritization of any FOI law over secrecy provisions in other legislation.

The draft on the looks of it follows these standard principles and recommended framework of a RTI Bill. According to Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, Editor of the Colombo Telegraph the bill is a good start.

Speaking of the proposed bill Sunil Jayasekara, secretary of the Free Media Movement (FMM) said the draft bill appears to be satisfactory. “This is very similar to the bill presented in 2003 and we are currently reviewing it” he said adding that while it is a step forward FMM will also compile a report suggesting a few revisions to the document.

“The presented draft bill is a good document and very well done” Rockwood said agreeing with Sunil Jayasekara, he also mentioned that the draft is similar to the previous draft that was presented to the parliament. “It has been rehashed” he admitted.
Media

Clearly such a bill can do wonders for the media industry. “We have time and time again fought for the cause” said Sunil Jayasekara of the FMM adding that the media and professionals have always been interested in getting RTI laws implemented in Sri Lanka.

In a time where gossip is meted out as news Jayasekara says RTI laws will mean better professionalism in the media industry. “Journalists with no media ethics will not be able to survive in such an environment” he said. Explaining himself Jayasekara said that by having information available freely, media institutions will not have an excuse for shoddy reporting.

Sukumar Rockwood, Chief Executive Officer of the PCCSL agrees. “While the law will be important to both media and civil society it will be able to transform the media industry” he said adding that media will learn to report more accurately. “They can do good stories” he said adding that this will hold the government responsible for their actions. “This will build a more credible media in the country” he said.

According to Kurukulasuriya journalism in other countries where RTI laws have been implemented is quite different to Sri Lanka as they have access to information and therefore can deliver accurate, fair and balanced accounts to the public. “It will open new subjects which media is unable cover now” he said adding that currently access to information in Sri Lanka is severely limited by number of factors such as the legislative framework which includes secrecy legislation.

Civil Society
The law if enacted will also be largely important to the civil society. It is clear that for citizens to make informed decisions information must be made available. Through RTI voters will be able to assess the performance of elected officials thereby exercising their democratic rights effectively, for example through timely protests against new policies.

According to Rockwood this will encourage citizens to think and reason prior to making any decisions.

“If the parliament improved the draft, it will certainly can be used as tool of good governance, democracy or the ‘rule of the people’. Democracy rests on the belief that dialog and consensus between all members of society will bring about the fairest decision on how to manage social affairs and distribute social wealth.” Kurukulasuriya said adding that RTI is thus a critical element in ensuring full, rather than simply token, democracy. He stressed that it is the responsibility of the State to ensure that everyone has equal access to information pertaining not only to their private lives, but to everything that affects them as citizens.

Failings and Pitfalls
However concerned parties have noticed certain pitfalls in the draft. “There is no mention of the private sector” Kurukulasuriya pointed out. “It should be applied for the private sector and non-government organization (NGO) sector too. Even the RIT Acts in Bangladesh and Indonesia covered both sectors. South Africa has a better version” he said.

He was also quick to point out that people have been refused the opportunity to look into examination results. “What about fraud and improper grading?” he questions which is a valid query given the incidents in the recent past.

According to him Whistleblowing is a key component in the fight for good governance against corruption and abusing powers and he says that whistleblower protection in the draft bill (para 38) is not enough. “It clearly needs whole separate law on protecting such individuals” he says.

Civil Society groups also appear to have a misgiving about not being approached by the government despite claims to the contrary. Civil society activists, media or more importantly the public has not been consulted in the matter yet.
“The government did not approach us” said Jayasekara adding that it was his organization instead that approached the government on the topic. “But we will not get into a conflict over this as the most important thing is to get a comprehensive and proper RTI law passed” he said adding that however the government has not done their duty in informing interested groups.

Agreeing Kurukulasuriya said not only media but public also should be consulted. “These are characteristic of an authoritarian regime” he said.

But according to most, the biggest challenge will be the implementation of the laws through the state mechanism. While more than 90 countries in the world today have introduced Right to Information (RTI) legislations to safeguard people´s access to public information, the implementation part has not been smooth.

“We all know how government institutions work so this is what we are most concerned about” Jayasekara said adding that 50 percent of the government officers do not like RTI laws to be passed. “They have not been educated regarding it and feel like it is an attempt to trap them or meddle in their matters” he said adding that this must be immediately rectified putting to rest any doubts they might have in order to effectively enforce these laws.

According to Victor Ivan, Former Editor of Ravaya any information thus obtained must be allowed to be used and shared freely. “There is no point giving people information they will not be able to use” he said.

Also there appears to be a wait of 28 working days to receive information. “This is way too long ” says Kurukulasuriya.

“The laws will work and I am optimistic about this” says Rockwood. However, according to him for it to work the rights handed over by RTI laws must be put to use. “Media and public must use their right and ask for information” he said adding that only then the laws will be effective in creating good governance. According to him the responsibility also lies in the media to ensure this. “Journalists must use the free information and also educate the people about their right to receive information” he said adding that only then this law will be a successful one. 

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Last modified on Saturday, 14 February 2015 19:19

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