Govt. Says ‘No’ to a modern citizen’s Right

Govt. Says ‘No’ to a modern citizen’s Right

SundayTimes: Editorial:    

The slip showed badly; this Government made it clear it has no intention of bringing in a Right to Information Law that will allow citizens to have access to official information that affects their daily lives.

So, secrecy in Government will continue to be maintained. The people, ordinary people, will have no business getting to know how their money will be spent or how government decisions are taken, and why so. That will continue to be the exclusive preserve of their elected representatives and non-elected officials. Questions can, no doubt, be raised in parliament, but if the opposition has gone to sleep or ministers delay in answering questions, then so be it.

On June 21, the Government fell into the opposition’s trap for once. The opposition knew that the Government would not want any such law, but proceeded to present a Private Member’s bill. The Government shot it down in Parliament, and then shot itself in the foot trying to explain why it did what it did.

Without continuing with its infamous prevarication on why it is not bringing in a law that is now found in more than 100 democratic countries, by saying it is “looking into it”, President Mahinda Rajapaksa no less, said, “why do you want such a law, just ask me for a file and I will give it to you”. He was speaking to editors of national newspapers who broached the subject this week after attempts by the opposition to introduce such a law, however dated it may be, failed to get Government approval.

The President has clearly missed the point. A Right to Information Law is not for editors to ask for a government file, but for ordinary citizens to apply for a government file anywhere in the country. The President’s offer also came to naught when at the same meeting, he was asked why he was not releasing Justice Shiranee Tillakawardene’s Commission of Inquiry report on arms procurements in the Sri Lanka Navy, especially during the tenure of Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. The editors were told that it was the President’s prerogative to release such a report, and that he had reason not to release it. The contradiction was stupendous, though not entirely surprising.

The Government has shown little or no interest in bringing in this law. It would cause much discomfiture to the Government, as it does to all governments that open up the administration to the citizens. Today’s information technology is breaking down these secrecy barriers, and where it remains, like in the case of the Wikileaks saga, the entire gamut of top secret files are made available to the whole wide world.

An influential Cabinet Minister of the Rajapaksa administration was to explain the Government’s decision to sabotage the opposition moves. He told poor villagers in the District of Ratnapura this week that the draft law was prepared by an NGO and that this law would enable imperialist forces to obtain information about Sri Lanka before invading it. It was not only a factually incorrect statement, it was the limits to which this Government goes to whip the ‘foreign intervention’ bogey to shore up its domestic support.

The factual inaccuracy was that this law that was introduced in parliament was drafted by a committee chaired by the country’s Attorney General, not any NGO. Thereafter, the UPFA Government’s Justice Ministry revised the 2004 draft in 2010 and handed a copy to the President. And if such laws are a precursor to a foreign invasion then more than 100 countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in this region must be awaiting an imperialist invasion any time now. On the contrary, the imperialists seem to be invading countries that do not have such laws as wee see in the case of Libya.

Information about the bankruptcy of Sri Lanka Cricket, just three months after co-hosting the World Cup, or the expenditure of Rs. 400 million for a four-kilometre stretch on the Chenkaladi-Maha Oya road in the Eastern Province or the expenditure of Rs. 40 million for the 1.7-kilometre of the Hettipola-Chilaw road about which even the local Panduwasnuwara Pradeshiya Sabha knows nothing of, or how school admissions take place, how tenders are doled out, or even how the head of the legal division was recruited to the Ministry of External Affairs (as a news item in this section reports) cannot really be useful information to an enemy waiting to invade us, surely.

On the other hand, it is information that a citizen has a right to know now however much a Government or a Minister might want to hide it. The argument that national security will be compromised has little substance because national security — like an individual’s health or tax records and trade secrets — is exempt from the law. If there is any deficiency then the remedy is to rectify it accordingly, not to throw the baby with the bathwater.

President Rajapaksa also remarked that there is no requirement for a Right to Information Law when the Government is strengthening the Bribery and Corruption Commission. Broadly he may have an idea what the aim of this law is – to root out corruption at micro-level, I.e. At village or rural level where the people have for years had to live with a ‘take it or leave it’ approach from governments – and now provincial councils. But it is also clear that the President is very poorly briefed on this proposed law, and what the ultimate objectives of such a law are.

That the Government has got jittery about such a law does not speak well for it. It has exposed itself as an administration that wants to put the lid on what it is doing, both administratively and financially, and more so at a time when it claims a resurgence in economic development is afoot and with it contracts on offer are galore.

The country is aware that the world is watching Sri Lanka’s every step in the post-war period. The country’s democratic credentials are severely under test. Next week, when Parliament meets, the monthly extension of Emergency Regulations (ER) will be taken up for debate, and no doubt passed. These ERs have become part of the normal law of the country; the extraordinary has become the ordinary.

If the Government wishes to spruce up its image as a democratic administration, it must think in terms of bringing in laws like the Right to Information and gradually repeal some of the draconian provisions of the Emergency Regulations.

Post ‘war’ amendments in 2010 to these ERs under the Public Security Act resulted in the relaxation of some aspects of the Emergency such as the shortening of the time that a person may be detained on suspicion that he or she may have committed an offence. Permitting the admissibility of confessions to a senior police officer was also dropped, but the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) remains, so there has been effectively no real change in this regard. Equally, judicial discretion in granting bail is restricted and trade union activities continue to be curtailed.

A large number of regulations promulgated under the Public Security Act remain inaccessible to the public because of delays in the publication of Gazettes. New offences are created with harsh punishments without the public knowing what they are. We are now seeing the Police being unleashed on parliamentarians and media personnel who ask questions about ruling party politicians.

It cannot be the intention of this otherwise popular, populist Government to run as a secretive Police-state. Like justice, democratic Government must not only be done, but seem to be done as well.

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