The RTI as a constitutional guarantee - EDITORIAL

21 April 2015 06:55 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena promised the country in general and the journalists in particular, that it would enact a Right to Information (RTI) Bill and ensure media freedom in the country. While the stakeholders were looking forward to the RTI being introduced as an ordinary Bill, it comes as a constitutional right through the 19th Amendment.

One might argue in favour of the government’s decision to introduce the RTI as a law of the country, but doing so through the Constitution would strengthen the position of the people as well as that of journalists because it would not be easy for a future government to rescind it. Once the RTI becomes part of the Constitution any future government would need a two-thirds majority in the Parliament to annul it.

True, but on the other hand, since the RTI comes to us through the Constitution the clauses with respect to the RTI need to be extremely flawless.  If there are flaws that go against the expectations of the masses, especially that of the media, it would take another government which could muster a two-thirds majority to rectify the situation.  

Are the provisions of  the RTI in the 19th Amendment flawless? That is the moot point now before the people especially the journalists who have been fighting for the past few decades to have the right to free access to information. The relevant Article in the 19th Amendment states that,: “Every citizen shall have the right to access to any information held by (a) The State, a Ministry or any Government Department or any statutory body established or created by or under any law; (b) Any Ministry of a Province or any Department or statutory body established or created by a statute of a Provincial Council (c) Any local authority and any other person of information that is required for the exercise or protection of the citizen’s rights.

That part of the relevant Article is fine. There cannot be any issue with it for any citizen or journalist. However, no right can be enjoyed without restrictions -- “Your right to swing your arms ends where the other person’s nose begins.” Hence, there could be restrictions for the RTI as well.

However the restrictions should not negate the purpose of the basic idea. The 19th Amendment states that, “No restrictions shall be placed on the right declared and recognized by this Article, other than such restrictions prescribed by law as are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals and of the reputation or the rights of others, privacy, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

If the authorities deny any information on these grounds it would surely be a blanket blockade of information. The authorities seem to have just copied and pasted these grounds for restricting the disclosure of information from a list of recommendations by the Council of Europe. Referring to these European grounds, “Article 19”,  the London-based organization for the defence and promotion of freedom of expression states, “It is not legitimate to refuse to disclose information simply because it relates to one of these interests.”

Therefore, it is prudent to bring an amendment to the 19th Amendment during the committee stage of the debate in Parliament to include only the basic idea in the Constitution and to have the other details such as the restrictions (not the ones that are in the 19th Amendment)  in a related ordinary Bill that does not need to have a two-thirds majority in case damage control becomes necessary.

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