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Lack of ‘Right to Information’ is an indicator of Primitive Democracy

6 June 2013 08:28 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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In the early era, there was a traditional belief in the world that there should be three pillars namely the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, to retain the golden shrine of democracy. But it is an outdated criterion whereas present day democracy strongly believes there should be a fourth estate which is also known as free media and it is indispensable for the existence of democratic states.

As Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of USA said, democracy is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Democracy becomes a reality only when there is people’s participation which is nowadays popularly known as participatory democracy. In the absence of the liberty for the people to express their ideas and opinions in a country, they own nothing in that country (Plato). John Milton the philosopher, has said if the right of expression is given to the people, they need no other liberties.

Freedom of expression is enjoyed only by a limited number of countries in the world as indicated below,
Countries with media freedom 90 countries 47%
Countries with partial media freedom    60 countries 31%
Countries with no media freedom    43 countries 22%
(2008 statistics by Freedom House)

In the annals of democracy, the Magna-Carta, which was entered in 1215 in UK could be considered the cornerstone in the establishment of media freedom. There were philosophers who advocated for this worthy cause in many ways. French philosopher Francoise Voltaire (1778) has said;

“I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death, your right to say it”.

The degree of the right of expression in a given country is an indicator to gauge the level of civilisation in modern representative democracies. Next to Magna-Carta, one other important land mark on the subject is the first amendment to the constitution of USA adopted in 1791.  It reads as follows;

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the fare exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition government for a redress of grievances.”

One time New York Governor, Mario M. Cuomo has said, the most sacred right of the people in a democracy is the right of expression. In the celebrated judgment of Spycatcher case, Lord John Donaldson interpreted media freedom in the following manner;

“A free press is an essential element in maintaining parliamentary democracy and the British way of life as we know it. But it is important to remember why the press occupies this crucial position. It is not because of any special wisdom interests or status enjoyed by proprietors, editors or journalists. It is because the media are the eyes and ears of the general public. They act on behalf of the general public for whom they are trustees”.

That is another landmark in the history of stabilising the media freedom as the concept of public trust, which was applicable to rulers in democratic governance and has been expanded to encapsulate the media personnel who are engaged in protecting and promoting the liberty of the people. This public trust concept has been well recognised by the International Court of Justice which was presided over by its Vice President Dr. C.G. Weeramantry in the famous judgment known as Danube Case. It is important to note that the International Court of Justice has based its findings on the preaching of Arahant Mahinda Thero to King Devanampiyatissa in 223 B.C. which states as follows;

“O’ great King, the birds of the air and beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou. The lands belong to the people and all living beings; thou art only the guardian of it....”

This public trust concept has been adopted in a series of landmark judgments by our Supreme Court including Eppawala Phosphate case, Waters Edge case, privatisation of Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation case etc.

At the same time it cannot be taken lightly that the members of the journalist profession have become the most targeted and exposed group, to dangers. Since 1999 upto 2008, there had been 429 journalists killed, in the world and 18 were Sri Lankan Journalists. Sri Lanka is ranked in No. 16 on the killing toll of journalists in the world. Since 01.01.2006 09 journalists have been killed, 5 had been kidnapped and disappeared and 27 had been assaulted in Sri Lanka.

As we know the motto of journalism is “facts are sacred and comments are free”. If this liberty is not ensured, the entire scheme of democratic process would derail and democracy becomes an illusion to the people. If accurate information is not disseminated, people always tend to form wrong opinions and take wrong and hazardous decisions which are horrendous at times.

Media has been mostly and quite successfully used by rulers for political expediency and to hoodwink people.

In a dictatorial government, the first victim is the truth and the second is the State Coffer (Exchequer-treasury). Truth can prevail only in a society where the right to information is ensured.

This right has been recognised in all international Charters and Conventions. Articles 18 to 20 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted on 01.12.1948 have categorically ensured and Article 19 states;

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion or expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to send, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.”

Similarly, that right has been entrenched in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted on 23.03.1970. Although the Constitution of UK is unwritten, that right had been guaranteed by a statute adopted in 1998 on human rights. Article 14 of our Constitution also has guaranteed it.

But in practice it has been an uphill task. Lives of journalists were at stake when defamation was constituted as a criminal offence in the Penal Code and Press Council Law until it was repealed in 2003.

There remain several laws which stand as obstacle to right to information, such as Emergency Regulations (when imposed), Prevention of Terrorism Act (in the absence of terrorism) Official Secret Act and several other laws as regulatory measures.

Comparatively with Sri Lanka, India has a much better standard in the protection and promotion of independent media culture.

In 2005, Indian Parliament enacted the Right to Information Act whereby every citizen was ensured to be furnished with information regarding State institutions and transactions, except on sensitive matters of State security.

It was unfortunate that when the Right to Information Bill was presented in our Parliament in 2011, the ruling coalition with two-thirds majority, steamrolled the opposition and defeated it.

  Comments - 1

  • Namal Perera Friday, 07 June 2013 11:45 AM

    This is why former democratic Sri Lanka is now known as a corrupt, lawless Banana Republic ruled by a crazy family of dictators.


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