There is hope of Opposition support when Parliament debates the Act on June 23
The Right to Information Act is to be debated in Parliament on the 23rd June. The subject has been criticised by the general public. Responding to the disapproval the Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Karunarathna Paranawithana said the criticisms were baseless and had been made without a clear understanding of the draft. He also said that although the government could not introduce the Act during the period promised, it had been able to come up with a strong draft. Following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q : Why do you think that the Right to Information Act is necessary for a country like Sri Lanka?
Any democratic country needs this kind of law. And most democratic countries are practising this law. And we are strengthening our democracy. Most of the South Asian countries have adopted a law of this nature. We are a little behind. Our country is now moving forward with democracy and good governance. We have set aside autocracy. In order to conduct democratic governance properly the public authorities should be kept under public scrutiny. So this is the law.
Q : Why do you think that the previous regime did not allow this act to be passed despite serious attempts made by people like present Speaker Karu Jayasuriya?
Actually the discussion to bring this kind of law goes back to two decades. Dharmasiri Senanayake a minister when President Chandrika Bandaranaike was in office stressed the need of this kind of law and she as the President appointed the R.K.W Gunasekera commission to make some recommendations with this regard and this commission recommended this kind of law. After that the Ranil Wickremesinghe government in 2002 tried to bring this law and in 2003 on the day the Bill was presented in Parliament it was dissolved. We have to understand the context of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
That government was in a way a protectionist government. It was a government that securitinised everything including the media and information. Securitization was their “mantra”. They objected to discuss the law even at the very low level. They opposed the Bill again brought by Hon. Karu Jayasuriya as a private member Bill. There was a kind of resentment. However our election manifesto at the last Presidential election and the UNF manifesto at the last general election both highlighted the necessity of this law. We are fulfilling that now.
This is not the time to find fault with the previous government. Now we have been given an opportunity and we are doing it. I hope that members of the opposition would also support us this time and we expect that there won’t be any division in the Parliament.
Q : One of the promises given by the Yahapalana government was to give life to the Right to Information Act soon after its appointment. But even after one and half of years the government has failed to give life to it. Why is that?
It is true that we promised we would bring this law within hundred days. We adopted a kind of stage by stage strategy for this. In the 19th amendment which was implemented during our one hundred days programme we brought one part. That is we promoted the right to information as a fundamental right. So we were able to include right to information as a fundamental right in this country. Now it is a fundamental law and is a constitutional law and it is very much in the constitution now. We did that and when we were finalizing the draft during 100 days government, there was a big demand from the civil society and like minded professionals that we should not pass that law in a hurry and they demanded a discussion. And in the mean time we faced some political issues like no confidence motion against one of the ministers. The political situation was not conducive enough to bring that law in a hurry.
Therefore we had to satisfy with the fundamental chapter and then we thought to acquire a fresh mandate and bring this law. Then we won the election and formed the government. By that time I was Secretary to the Media Ministry and now I am the Deputy Minister . With the help of all the groups who were interested, we reviewed all the previous drafts, acts and laws of this nature in other South Asian countries and we prepared a very promising draft. Although we are a little behind we have produced a good draft.
It has been ranked as the seventh best law in the world by the Center of Law and Democracy, a Canadian based institution. I don’t think delay is a big issue now.
Q : Although it is a “right to information there seem to be places where it is explicitly prohibited to provide information. For instance section 5(1) C of the draft bill denies access to a wide range of information with regard to the economy of the country, taxation, overseas agreements etc. Why is that?
This law also has some reservations. Those are essential reservations. Information with regard to the national security, harmful information for national economy, examinations, foreign trade agreement negotiations etc that are necessary restrictions. If you look at all the other right to information law in other countries also you may see those restrictions are prevailing. For an example you can’t demand the breakdown of the arms of the Army. How many multi- barrels you have etc. those details are not supposed to be revealed. You can’t ask a public doctor about his treatment for a particular patient. That is the privacy of the patient. You can’t ask premature disclosure of foreign trade agreements.
Just because we are ready to give information other party might not like to do so. According to the practices of international trade agreement we can’t do those things. Imagine that central government is going to set the exchange rate. You can’t ask those details today because revealing these details are harmful to the national economy.
However these limitations also have exceptions. When there is a huge public outcry, then according to the act, the information commission has been given the discretion to reveal those restricted
information to the public.
Q : Also Section (j) of the same section denies to provide information with regard to examinations. As you know there were many complaints during the past regime about examination scandals. What will happen to a journalist who wants to get details in that regard?
There are some secret areas in the Department of Examinations. These are known as exam secrets. So if you ask who are the examiners of a particular question paper, I think that should not be revealed. You cannot ask who makes the examination paper from the Commissioner of Examinations.
If he reveals the examiners are some people can approach him, threaten him or bribe him and get what is in the question papers. That kind of information should not be given even for journalists. If you feel that there is a big scandal going on, fraud, malpractices, etc., journalists are free to reveal those things even without the right to information law of this country. Journalists are not barred.
Q : As the Deputy Minister don’t you think provisions of the RTI Act hinders the right to get information?
That is a misunderstanding. Whether there is this kind of act or not it is the duty of the journalists to reveal what they know in the interest of the public.
And these restrictions are for the well being and the security and privacy of the people. I’m sure even journalists are not going to violate those restrictions. Because of this law, journalists will have credible information from Public Authorities. Before this Act there were no credible sources. There is a tendency of some bureaucrats not to give details and prevent journalists from asking information. But after this act every public institution have an information officer who is legally bound to provide information. So this act will create very conducive environment to exercise
Q : The draft bill does not specify the actions that will be taken if the information prohibited in section 5 is published. Is there any purpose of keeping this vague?
This punitive clause is applicable to the commission. The commission gets some information that should not be revealed. So even after serving commission after his/her tenure a member of the commission should not reveal information.
You can be the Commissioner today and not tomorrow. But you are not allowed to give those details even after serving the commission. Only officers are barred to provide restricted information. If that is violated there is a punishment.
I can see some interpreted this clause saying that by publishing those kind of information the publisher or the journalist would be punished. This is not the case. I want to say even with or without right to information law the journalist’s duty is to expose corruption, malpractices, make people aware.
If there is any ambiguity in the terms or usage of words we will adjust it. But the intention is to prevent officers in the commission in revealing restricted information.
Q : Some say that soon after the Act is passed there will be a flow of information. Do you think that is possible?
No that will not happen. You have to appoint the commission, you have to train and recruit information officers, appeal officers, develop modules, enact by laws, regulations and also there should be an attitude change among public officers and the general
public also. We must get support from the international community and political stake holders as well. It’s a huge exercise.According to the Act, you need six months for its implementation. We want RTI activists in this country.