In spite of the fact that the introduction of a Right to Information (RTI) Bill is one of the main promises made by President Maithripala Sirisena and the present government during the just-concluded presidential election campaign, the statements made by the Ministers after the election on the matter might puzzle the masses.
Government’s spokesman Minister Rajitha Senarathne said last week that there will be no more spokespersons for the armed forces as the war has ended long ago. At the same time he had stated to the utmost disgust of the media community of the country that government officials would not be allowed to provide information to the media and journalists have to obtain information only from the Secretaries of Ministries.
It was not sure whether the Minister took note of the fact that the ban on the government officials to provide information to the media runs counter to the government’s pledge to make the natural right of the people to know a law. Also the abolition of the post of spokesperson for the armed forces just because the war has ended implies that the government is of the view that the media does not need any more information from the armed forces after the end of the war.
Assigning a spokesperson or the Secretary to a Ministry to deal with journalists would in most cases help the government to conceal or distort facts and also lead to stereotype stories being supplied by those spokespersons, especially in crisis situations. On the other hand, free approach of the relevant authorities by the scribes under the right to information would lead the media to approach the persons who have first-hand information of events. It would also help provide a plethora of diverse aspects of incidents. Most important among them are the first-hand information and minimization of distortion by spin doctors of governments.
The United National Party, the main protagonist of the current regime has been fighting for a Right to Information Bill and one of the leaders of the party Karu Jayasuriya presented a Bill as a private member’s Bill in Parliament in 2010. It was thwarted by the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) by stating that the government was planning to present its own RTI Bill, which never saw the light.
One of the dated promises of the New Democratic Front (NDF) under its 100-Day programme is introducing an RTI Bill. It has to be presented in the Parliament on February 20 and passed on March 20. Information and Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilake told the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, Most Ven. Udugama Sri BuddharakkithaThera on Sunday that a committee is to be appointed to formulate the Bill. It goes without saying that the purpose of a RTI Act is to allow the media men as well as the ordinary public to have free access to the information they need.
This does not mean that the journalists should be allowed to reach all information including sensitive ones such as those pertaining to national security and privacy of persons. The media community is conscious of what their audiences “need to know” and “want to know” as that is a main point taught in journalistic ethics. The Asgiriya prelate also had rightly stressed the need for an ethical media, while speaking to the Media Minister on Sunday.
The RTI is not a right only for the scribes. Rather it is a right of the ordinary man as well which is widely used by the ordinary people in India where RTI has been legalized, when they deal with the State officials. One cannot be asked to approach the Ministry Secretary if the application for a copy of his birth certificate is ignored by the officials. He must have the right to send a letter of demand under the RTI law to the relevant officials. Besides, Ministry Secretaries are not a lot to approach so easily even by leading journalists, leave alone the ordinary men from Buttala or Chavakachcheri.
The media community is conscious of what their audiences “need to know” and “want to know” as that is a main point taught in journalistic ethics. The Asgiriya prelate also had rightly stressed the need for an ethical media, while speaking to the Media Minister on Sunday.
Hence, the authorities should not confuse the people by saying that they are to present an RTI Bill while claiming that journalists can obtain information only from Ministry Secretaries. Also the Media Minister need not take pains to appoint committees to formulate an RTI Bill since there is one unsuccessfully presented by Minister Karu Jayasuriya in 2010.