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Right to Information a missing link in our democracy

15 October 2015 07:22 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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A long awaited RTI Bill is to show face in Parliament before the end of October

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on Tuesday has told a delegation of civil society activists of the March-12 movement that the much awaited Right to Information (RTI) Bill would be presented in Parliament before the end of this month bringing relief to many of its campaigners who have been waiting for this  news for several years. Speaker Jayasuriya who fought for this law even through a private member motion under trying circumstances several years ago, has this subject in his DNA. 

The RTI popularly known as the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was an election pledge of the Maithripala Sirisena camp that was expected to be delivered during the 100-day programme; but it did not materialise. When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe first informed of the inability to adopt the law during the previous Parliament to a group of foreign media experts at a meeting at Temple Trees in May this year, many of us who participated at the meeting were disappointed. But after the PM explained the reasons, all agreed it was prudent to wait for a couple of more months. The fear was that the Bill may get diluted in the face of a heavy bargaining process between the then Rajapaksa-led fraction that was still commanding the majority in the House and the minority regime led by Premier Wickremesinghe. There had already been precedence with regard to the 19th Amendment which underwent a similar bargaining process. The Yahapalana supporters did not want that to happen to the RTI Bill.

Now the baby is ready to come out, it seems, after many deliberations. The objective of this piece is to highlight two concerns with regard to the process. The first concern is on the quality of the Bill. There had been a panel of experts who had continuously contributed to ensure high international standards in the Bill through the Media Ministry. I happened to participate in two such meetings convened by the then Media Secretary Karunaratna Paranawithana who is now a deputy minister with no media responsibilities whatsoever. However, he possesses a sound knowledge on the subject of media development [but on the RTI he may have a big responsibility in implementing it at local government level]. At both those meetings I noticed the poor knowledge and understating of RTI laws in the Legal Draftsman’s Department and the Attorney General’s Department. On several occasions legal experts representing the state struggled in responding to questions posed by non-governmental experts who represented civil society. I noticed that state legal experts had no clue about the quality and standards of RTI laws elsewhere. I feared the quality of their output at the meetings, a view that was shared by others. We consoled ourselves by  thinking that perhaps we were wrong.

Nevertheless, these fears were proved correct when I heard details of another (hopefully the final) meeting held last week between non-governmental RTI experts and state legal representatives. Some of the non-state experts have had experiences in developing RTI laws in many countries through the UNESCO and other UN systems and we are fortunate to have these internationally acclaimed Sri Lankans volunteering to assist the process in their own country. But, whether their advice and contributions were taken in the right spirit and accepted is a million dollar question. 

The draft presented to them at the last week’s meeting at the Media Ministry had raised many concerns. Moreover, since there may not be another meeting for a final review, these experts are not confident whether their contributions would be accommodated in the final draft. 

RTI or as per the AG’s Department Right of Access to Information, has become a cardinal benchmark in good governance. Globally too, over half the countries in the world have adopted them.  But, many countries have implemented RTI laws for the sake of having them and ticked off in a box to confirm they were ensuring a practice in good governance. One example of such poor RTI mechanisms is one of our neighbouring Asian nations, Thailand, that had adopted RTI laws as far back as 1997 to become the 42nd country to do so. “But Thailand is a failure as nobody uses it [RTI]. We became the champions of Asia to adopt it, but without a proper mechanisms and public awareness, we did not achieve good results,” Thai media expert Kavi Chongkittavorn told a UNESCO round-table discussion on FoI laws in the Mekong countries held in Bangkok early this week. He stressed on the necessity to have laws of international standards with proper mechanisms in place to implement them rather than ticking off boxes of  good governance lists to appease the international community. 

The second concern is the role of civil society that should bring this campaign to grass-root levels and inform the public how to use it for their own benefit. Sri Lanka should learn from Indian civil society activists that fueled a massive mass movement in adopting RTI laws as a people’s movement. RTI in India was a bottom-up process while we are heading in an opposite direction. That is all right, but  it should be with a public awareness campaign that should be in place now. 

A similar movement is now taking place in Vietnam and Cambodia. Both countries are expected to bring in RTI laws by the end of next year. And, in Cambodia in particular, there is a significant grass-root level consultation process coordinated by UNESCO taking place  “It is a well-coordinated effort where grass-root inputs are systematically fed into the process of crafting the law. The highlight is the role being played by the civil society organisations,” Executive Director of the Cambodia Centre for Independent Media, Pa Ngoun Teang told the Bangkok roundtable meeting. Sri Lanka is yet to see a similar role being played by our civil society. 

Forget civil society, what about the media which will be a main beneficiary of RTI laws? Do we see a vibrant media platform that deliberates the issue of RTI in depth and explain its benefits to the public? Do they provide enough space and attention to this issue of immense public interest? Does the average journalist understand the concept of RTI? Do we see a constant news coverage on RTI, mainly by our local language media, except for a once-in-a-blue moon news item? Do they even bother about it? 

As far as I understand, there are three necessities with regard to RTI. The first is to have high quality laws comparable to international ones. The second is to establish a sound system to implement the laws throughout the country. The third and most important factor is public awareness. If a farmer in a rural village does not know how to make use of this tool that strengthens his entire lifestyle, both the above factors become null and void. 

If Sri Lanka fails to address these three factors connected to a RTI package effectively, it may become another Thailand.
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