By John Amaratunga
All decisions taken by the Government affects its citizens. So the citizen in a vibrant democracy has the right to know what’s happening. The right to information therefore is a fundamental right of the citizen constitutionally guaranteed by all modern democracies in the world. In its enactment it empowers the citizen, and as a focal right assures basic freedoms for the creation of good governance. In simple language information in this context means anything that exists in any form with the Public Authority. And such information is deemed to be held by the Public Authority on behalf of the people who are the rightful owners of such information. It becomes pertinent to recall that the Government of Sri Lanka in 1980 has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights making it incumbent on the government to enact such laws and amendments that may become necessary for effective implementation of this Covenant. As for the democratic rights enshrined in our Constitution our Supreme Court in a judgment in 2004 has held that even a bare denial of access to official information amounts to an infringement on the rights guaranteed by Article 14(a). Ex-Chief Justice Asoka de Silva making a keynote address at a function soon after retirement emphasized on the need to enact relevant legislation to enhance this basic right of the people recognized by the Constitution of the country to ensure transparency and accountability with regard to governance so as to hold Ministers of the State accountable for their actions. The implementation of the right to information therefore has a legal binding on the Government for openness, accountability and better State Sector Management. Government’s own baby, the LLRC, ratifies this in its recommendations as an imperative for Reconciliation and good governance.
The push for the right to information legislation emerged in 2001 under the United National Party led coalition government through a Draft Bill submitted by the Law Reform Commission which failed to see light of day due to change of government. The change saw the beginning of a new administrative culture allowing free rein to politicians and public servants to indulge in criminal misappropriation, misuse and fraudulent investments of public funds and other related abuses of corruption and waste. Recent events of misuse of public funds amounting to billions of rupees will be shelved as always with no one held responsible. The United National Party presented a Right to Information Bill as a private member’s bill in 2011 which the Government majority out voted in Parliament. Subsequent attempts by the Party were also shot down. Government came out with a pledge to present its own Right to Information Bill which remains in limbo. The disconcerting factor is wrong signals from the President himself. He is on record to have said to a group of journalists last year that a Right to Information Bill is superfluous. This is most unbecoming of a person who shot into limelight in local politics as a champion of Fundamental Rights. His foot march protest “Pada Yathra” from Colombo to Kataragama invoking divine intervention for people’s rights cannot be forgotten. Mahinda Chinthana for Presidency 2005 did promise to include a Charter of Rights into the Constitution based on the Declaration of United Nations and other International Treaties to uphold social, cultural, political, economic and civic rights to all citizens. He affirmed commitment to good governance in Mahinda Chinthana in 2010. Some positives have come from his keynote address to a congregation of Buddhist religious dignitaries at the UN Wesak Commemoration Celebration that was held in Thailand where he has spoken on respect for human rights.
In neighbouring India the right to information is already law and considered a milestone. People of diverse backgrounds have used the right fearlessly to expose corruption and hold public officials accountable. No longer can Government Departments and nameless officials hide behind the red tape curtain for citizens could have the right to know what decisions have been made in their name. Much could be borrowed from the Indian RTI Act. It is important for Sri Lanka to have specific legislation, providing the right to access official information. Such legislation will promote transparency of public action and help reduce wastage and misuse of public funds and make the government more accountable. In India people are unafraid to agitate for their just rights for they are educated so. Our system of education does not enlighten the rural student . But the political contours are changing and people will rise in force against corruption and bad governance if the government fails to address the issues in good time. People now freed from war are opened for reconciliation and good governance. People await freedom from the anarchy of political bondage and bad governance.
The ball is in the Government’s Court to kick start the process for Reconciliation and good governance by presenting the Right to Information Bill in good faith as it must be. If not allow the Opposition to do so.