In the West and other democratic countries like India, we regularly hear of reports as we do in Sri Lanka of political corruption, hypocrisy, frauds, cover-ups and the plunder of public funds. But the difference in those countries is that there are checks and balances and specially a free media through which most of these political crimes are exposed and the rogues, racketeers or hypocrites are given enough rope to hang themselves.
This is the root of the crises in Sri Lanka. Since 2005 we have seen a gradual deterioration if not decay of hallowed, time tested democratic values such as accountability, transparency checks and balances through an independent judiciary and an independent media.
In 2004, the then UNP government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe worked out a Freedom of Information Bill which many independent analysts saw as one of the most enlightened documents produced in Sri Lanka. But it was not presented in parliament and implemented. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge carried out her notorious constitutional coup which lead to a dissolution of Parliament and the defeat of the Wickremesinghe government at the General Election after that. Ms. Kumaratunga’s new government and the Rajapaksa regime showed little or no interest in this Freedom of Information Bill though such laws have been enacted and are working effectively to promote democracy in some 85 countries including four South Asian countries India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
As democratic values and traditions were killed and buried one by one in Sri Lanka the UNP’s then Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya with the support of the party introduced a Private members motion for the implementation of the Freedom of Inforamation Bill. But the government angrily threw it out abusing its huge parliamentary majority which it did not get from the people but was patched together through political horse deals. Government leaders assured a new Bill would be presented but it has turned out to be another one of the hundreds of broken promises.
The word ‘If’ has just two letters but it is a mighty big word. If the 2004 draft of the Freedom of Information Bill had been implemented it would have given any Sri Lankan citizen freedom of access to official information.
The draft Bill specifies grounds on which such access may be denied. These include National Security matters, individual’s health records and trade secrets, and provides for the establishment of the Freedom of Information Commission and the appointment of Information Officers, setting out the procedure for making requests for information. In other words, the proposed legislation would have ensured openness, transparency and accountability in governance, and a check on corruption.
The Bill states that it will be the duty of Ministers and Public Authorities to maintain all the records in such a manner and in such a form as consistent with its operational requirements duly catalogued and indexed. It shall be the duty of the President and every Minister to publish once in every two years and in such manner as may be determined by him, a report containing the following information; particulars relating to the organisations, functions, activities and duties of the Ministry of such Minister, and of all the public authorities falling within the functions assigned to such Minister; the powers, duties and functions of officers and public employees of the Ministry and the public authorities and the procedure followed by them in their decision making process.
Instead of implementing this enlightened Bill, Government Spokesman and Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella—who plays around so much that he is not taken seriously by independent journalists—is talking about new regulations and a code of ethics to further restrict media freedom. It will be the joke of the decade for some of the most corrupt politicians in Sri Lanka’s history to impose a code of ethics for journalists and it will be similar to the devil quoting scriptures.
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