The Act alone won’t bridge the info gap
Exactly 14 months after January 20, last year, the date on which the Right to Information Bill was to be presented in Parliament under the 100 Day Programme put forward by President Maithripala Sirisena during the last Presidential election campaign, the Government managed to present it in the House on March 23 this year.
Before that Right to Information (RTI) was incorporated in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that was adopted on April 28 last year.
It is interesting to note that the Bill has been presented in Parliament at a time, when Karu Jayasuriya, who unsuccessfully attempted twice to introduce the Bill during the last regime, was presiding over the House.
The Rajapaksa Government hoodwinked him to withdraw his first private member’s Bill in September, 2010 through the then Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardane, who stated that the Government was planning to present a Bill in six months. But the same Government, which did not live up to its promise, unashamedly defeated Jayasuriya’s second private member’s Bill in 2011.
Although the present Bill, if adopted, is said to provide every citizen of this country the right to access to information, which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority, it also contains a plethora of restrictions to access information.
These restrictions have been imposed, according to the Bill, in order to prevent invasion of privacy, harm to national security, serious prejudice to Sri Lanka’s relationship with other countries, harm to international agreements, causing prejudice to the economy of the country including matters pertaining to exchange rates, banking, taxation, overseas trade agreements, disclosure of medical records of any person, disclosure of confidential sources, disclosure of information that would be in contempt of court, disclosure of information that would infringe the privileges of Parliament and disclosure of information that would harm the integrity of an examination conducted by the Examinations Department or a Higher Education Institute.
This long list of restrictions might at the first sight disappoint any concerned citizen, in spite of their overtly reasonable validity in the context of irresponsible journalistic practices in the country as well as around the world. Also, the country needs an RTI Act as there are roadblocks on the way to information such as the Official Secrets Act, the Sri Lanka Press Council Act, and the Establishment Code for the Public Sector that prevents the majority of public sector officials from providing information, especially to the media.
And in the light of corruption and arrogance prevailing among Public Sector officials and the representatives, especially in office irrespective of their party, the access to information is naturally denied in many cases.
That is why the need of an RTI Act arises. But an RTI Act itself would not at the beginning pressurise the authorities to provide information to a citizen and they might hide behind the restrictions in the Bill as well as in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which are seen as a blanket blockade of information at first sight, to deny information to a citizen.
On the other hand, the understanding by the politicians of the free access to information is sometimes puzzling.
For instance, Government Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne said in January 2015 (Soon after President Maithripala Sirisena took office promising an RTI Bill among others) that there would be no more Spokespersons for the Armed forces as the war had ended long before.
At the same time he had stated to the utmost disgust of the media community that Government officials would not be allowed to provide information to the media and that journalists have to obtain information only from the Secretaries of Ministries.
In May 2014, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, who is said to be fighting for the democratic rights of the Northern Tamil people, has issued a circular depriving the same people of one of their key democratic rights, the right to information.
He had sent out the circular to the Jaffna media that they should not make any attempt to contact him at his office or residence. Ironically, three weeks before the Chief Minister issued his unwarranted circular, on the World Press Freedom Day, which fell on May 3, another TNA leader, M.A. Sumanthiran was among the political party leaders, who had attended the launch of a campaign for a Right to Information Act in Colombo.
The Daily Mirror had questioned the credentials of the statements by the Minister and the Chief Minister soon after they had been published.
Another hindrance to the free access to information is the timid acceptance of the status quo in information flow by the journalists as well as the ordinary citizens.
Also there prevails a misconception among the general public that an RTI Act would serve only the media and not the others. This situation prevails despite several Supreme Court rulings that had interpreted the Constitution in order to implicitly recognise RTI, as mentioned in the book “Right to Information: A Guide to Advocates” authored by Gehan Gunatilleke and published by the Sri Lanka Press Institute two years ago.
Gunatilleke quotes in the book a portion in Justice Mark Fernando’s judgment during the case of Fernando vs. the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation as saying “Information is the staple food of thought, and that the right to information … is a corollary of the freedom of thought guaranteed by Article 10.”
A similar ruling given by the Supreme Court in 1984 had also been quoted in the book. Even in India, where many people use and misuse the country’s RTI Act, information is not provided just because there is a law to do so. For instance, last year some of the convicts of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case had to file an RTI application demanding the reason for the repeated denial of their plea for clemency that had been made to the President more than a decade ago.
According to the present Bill tabled in the House, the process to access to information is a long drawn one, if access is denied at the first instance.
Sometimes it might take months for an application to be successful (or not), if it had to go through the Information Officer of a public authority, a designated officer, the Right to Information Commission and finally to the Court of Appeals, in case of denial by one after the other.
Therefore an awareness campaign as well as an advocacy campaign by the concerned media and civil society organisations are needed in order to take the message to the grassroots level and persuade the people affected by the denial of access to information to fight back and set precedents, even after the adoption of the Bill in Parliament. The RTI Bill, if enacted, would only be a licence to fight.