The Right to Information, the Moragoda initiative

The Right to Information, the Moragoda initiative

rtismallSunday Island – Feature

The brilliant article “Let the people have what’s theirs” by Kath Noble and her reference to the initiative of Minister Milinda Moragoda to empower us, the people, to have the right to obtain information, has prompted me to contribute my thoughts too, as a member of the public.

In the first place the fact that only a very few of those who are contesting at the general elections have agreed to declare their assets and have done so serves to indicate that unless there is huge public demand this laudable initiative may be dead in the water.

We see many politicians engaged in a savage dog fight to be of service to us! That certainly is a sick joke, for their love of themselves transcends the iota of love they have for the country. They seem to have much to hide or they do not seem to want to declare their assets. WHY? the answer seems obvious —— because they are already corrupt or do not wish to have their corruption completely exposed once they start making money after they achieve their goal of being elected to Parliament. Is this not obvious?

There is indeed some confusion with regard to this matter of Freedom of Information. It has been stated that in a recent case the Supreme Court read the right to information into article 10 of the Constitution which states that every person is entitled to freedom of thought and conscience and Article 14 (1) a, which states that “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech and expression including publication”.

I, a mere citizen, cannot for the life of me, understand how one can “read into this article” that the citizen has a right to information. I do wish some knowledgeable person would explain to us, the uninitiated, how such a construction came to be placed on this article. There has been no clarification anywhere as to how a citizen could seek information on any matter he or she is interested in. Yes, as to whether a citizen could, of right, demand information on an unclassified matter of public interest, remains to be seen.

There is no doubt that information is available in the form of Administrative Reports and there have been instances where the public has been requested to come forward and submit their views at Parliamentary Committee hearings and give evidence at Commissions of Inquiry; but this is not the same thing as a legal right of the public to demand information, for instance relating to the assets of any public personality or the amounts spent on public projects. This is what we and perhaps Minister Moragoda means by the Right to Information.

Openness in government or transparency is not something which our politicians and bureaucrats wish to see given legal effect to; they prefer a culture of secrecy. Kath Noble says there are 70 countries today which have legislated, giving their citizens the right to information with India among them. This right has made for better and more accountable governance and has also curbed corruption. So is there an acceptable reason for our country too not joining this democratic club?

It is of course not a mere matter of passing the law. The people must be able to see it being implemented on the ground. In the first instance the people and leaders such as Minister Moragoda should take the initiative to mobilize the public across party lines. I have no doubt that the JVP would support the measure and could mobilize their supporters to make themselves heard. The Buddhist clergy in particular must join this effort not only because of their numbers across the country but also because they should read into the first precept the positive obligation to ensure that politicians do not take what does not belong to them and rob the state. This obligation or vow must certainly extend to ensuring that there is no corruption.

The JHU has also an important role as their principles accord with this initiative. The clergy of other religions should also support this worthy cause. All social organizations such as the Rotary Clubs, the Lions Clubs, the Trade Unions and NGOs should also climb on board the campaign to acquire for the people of this country this most important of rights, the Right to Information. Last but not least the media should play a major role, for it is they who would benefit the most in the short term.

The time is NOW, for it is only now, in the run up to the general election that we the people are truly sovereign; after the election is over we abdicate our rights and influence. Let us therefore make the politicians, who are pleading for our votes, and the political parties promise us that they would empower us by giving us the Right to Information which would enable us to also participate in the governance of our country in a meaningful way.

There are two other initiatives of Mr. Moragoda which deserve similar public support. They are the Equal Opportunities Bill to reach out to the minorities and the Administration of Justice Law which favours the litigant and cut out the costly delays in administering justice.

Adolphus Silva

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