After delays and dilly-dallying for more than 13 years, the Cabinet this week approved a draft Right to Information Bill and put it for public dialogue and debate before it is presented in Parliament.
In the South Asian region, Sri Lanka was the first to present a bill in 2002 to ensure the people’s fundamental right to information and to prevent ruling politicians or officials from covering up issues relating to multi-million dollar deals. Often on the basis of national security or trade secrets, mega deals were covered up largely because of frauds, kick-backs and corruption – many of which are being exposed to a shocked people, though legal and party political issues are delaying or sidelining action against those who are alleged to have plundered billions of dollars in public funds, especially during the previous regime.
As we have stressed earlier real news is something that someone wants suppressed. The rest is largely advertising. This principle calls for proactive, investigative reporting or feature writing to dig up what VIPs are trying to hide and bring it before the court of the sovereign people or a court of law.
Unfortunately this was not possible due to restrictions and regulations. We hope that with the approval of the Right to Information Bill, Sri Lanka though being the last South Asian country to enact this essential law will not be the least in implementing it to consolidate the virtues of integrity and honesty, transparency and public accountability.
Article 19 is a London-based human rights organization with a specific mandate and focus on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide. We have not yet seen the full text of the draft approved by the Cabinet this week. Commenting on the original draft, Article 19 said the new government’s commitment to instilling a new culture of openness and transparency was commendable. However it said that while the original draft contained many positive attributes, such as the 10-year rule on providing secret information and the overriding of existing secrecy legislation, it has a number of flaws and is not completely in line with contemporary international standards.
Article 19 said the Bill should recognize that any person regardless of citizenship status has the right to information. Any limitation may result in officials preventing marginalized people – such as those living in extreme poverty – from making requests by imposing burdensome requests for identity and proof of citizenship. The Bill should explicitly state that people do not have to justify or explain the reason for their request. Without such explicit provisions, some officials may try to require applicants to declare their intentions and refuse to accept them. This will create a chilling effect. The appointments to the Information Commission should be clarified so that only candidates recommended by the Constitutional Council are appointed, rather than by the media minister; the Secretary of the Media Ministry should not be a member. The commission should choose its own president.
According to Article 19, the timescale of responding and providing information should be shortened - 28 working days or nearly 6 weeks would be far too long for people to receive information. The provisions on republication of information that is released should be deleted and replaced with a provision stating that all information released is freely re-publishable and reusable. The term “official information” should be replaced with “information” to prevent officials determining that information that they hold is not “official” and the related definition broadened and defined as “any information in any form held by a public authority”, Article 19 says.
The definition of “public authorities” should be broadened to ensure that all public and private bodies that are conducting public business are covered. The definition of “public interest” should be clarified to ensure that the Bills goals of promoting accountability, ensuring public participation, proper spending and other public interests are considered. The provisions for “affirmative publication” of information relating to reports and projects should be expanded. The Bill should provide for “regular publication” and include information on contracts, budgets, spending and so forth. The information should be released in open data format when applicable. It also says a separate law on protecting whistleblowers should be adopted.
With divisions within divisions in the UPFA and the SLFP with a so-called joint Opposition and an official Opposition adding to the constitution, a vital watchdog role needs to be played by whistleblowers, the independent media and civic action groups to ensure that the yahapalanaya government acts with sincerity and openness in building a new Sri Lanka.