As part of a campaign to modernize Sri Lanka’s legal system and further empower its citizens, I intend to propose to the Government the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act (FOI). At my request, the Coalition for Right to Information, a representative group of members of civil society and the media, is preparing a draft act for consideration by the Government. This proposal will seek to build upon the good work of previous administrations and civil society groups which have submitted earlier drafts of such legislation. The new draft will be made available for public comment and discussion.
I believe that this process can only succeed if there is a sustained civil society movement which works constructively with the Government, to both implement and subsequently test the working of FOI. Such a movement could also lobby the Government with a view to making improvements to the draft. I hope that the Coalition for Right to Information takes on this role. Such legislation has been considered by successive Governments in the past, but has never been taken up and made part of a legislative programme. The Sri Lanka National Congress has renewed the call for the adoption of FOI, the aim of which is to give to each citizen, as well as to civil society as a whole, a new way to ensure transparency of transactions with the Government.
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When private citizens request information from Government or Government-controlled institutions, the Act would provide for the responsiveness and accountability of the office addressed, and by that means, ensure transparency of transactions affecting the citizen.
How often have you wondered about the reason for a decision taken by a government department or institution on a matter in which you had an interest? Perhaps you thought your application for a license for a contract, or just to have your child admitted to school had been unfairly rejected. The FOI would enable you to require the authorities to explain their decision and to disclose the documents related to it. You could then decide for yourself whether or not their action had been justified.
The FOI would make available such a right of access in respect of a wide range of decisions by Government or Government-controlled institutions; such access may be refused only when, in the opinion of the authority concerned, disclosure of the information would adversely affect specified areas of the Government’s responsibilities, such as the security of the State or foreign relations, or would impede the course of justice, or constitute infringement of personal privacy.
In preparation for bringing the FOI into operation, ministers and public authorities will be required to maintain records of their activities in a prescribed manner, duly catalogued and indexed, and to preserve such records for specified periods.
Three months before the start of any major project, the minister responsible will be required to communicate to the public, and any particular persons likely to be affected by it, all information on the project available at the time.
Every Government department or Government controlled entity would be required to maintain on its staff one or more Information Officers, whose sole function would be to provide information to an applicant, and to do so within a specified period. If the information were to be available or need to be supplemented from another source, the Information Officer would be required to assist the applicant to approach that other source. If a request for information were to be refused, the applicant would have a right of appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission established by the Act.
The Commission will have wide powers to hold inquiries, to compel witnesses, and require the production of evidence. It is often said that “knowledge is power”. The right of access to information is one of the most significant rights empowering a citizen within a democracy. Several countries have already enacted laws along the lines we propose, giving power to their citizens to require detailed information on decisions taken by their governments.
Our neighbours India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have such legislation in place, as do other countries in Asia such as China, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Japan. Most West European countries have enacted such laws, as have Canada, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and the United States of America. I urge you to consider the power that the FOI will provide you with: besides enabling you to hold Government authorities to account when they take decisions that affect you, the FOI will be a valuable asset in the struggle against corruption, which is ceaselessly at work increasing social costs in every country, including our own.
Corruption has been defined as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. A bribe is a common form of corruption. A bribe may be paid to an officer to facilitate a service which his function requires him to provide, and for which he is already being regularly compensated. Or a bribe may be paid to an officer for a service which he is forbidden to provide. The payment and receipt of bribes fuels greed and undermines trust. If bribery becomes endemic, it will attack the social fabric of a community, resulting in loss of confidence in its institutions, and ultimately in its political leadership.
Following entry into force of the Indian “Right to Information Act”, on October 12, 2005, action under it by civil society resulted in a number of spectacular disclosures of corruption in various government schemes, including scams in Public Distribution Systems (ration stores), disaster relief, construction of highways, and in many other areas. The Act has been hailed as a landmark in India’s drive towards more openness and accountability. Civil society in Sri Lanka should also recognize the power that FOI will confer upon it, and have the courage to make full use of its provisions.
Adoption of the FOI will be the cornerstone of the programme of the Sri Lanka National Congress. When the FOI is enacted, it is important that the power that the FOI will give is used wisely and discreetly. It should be used whenever you are convinced that a decision against you was not justified. Used indiscriminately, complaints and their investigation could bring work in a Government office to a standstill. Used with restraint, it can produce what it promises: responsiveness, accountability and transparency from those who have power over our lives.