Sutirtho Patranobis, June 28, 2011
A two-thirds majority in a 225-member Parliament usually means that in the last election the people overwhelmingly voted for the current government. But does that mean that citizens have abdicated the right to ask questions? Or, even better, have handed over the right to control their thoughts to the
Last week, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) effortlessly defeated the Right to Information bill put up by a senior opposition leader.
No, silly, the government said; the bill was chucked out because a superior bill was on its way from the rulers. A minister said there was no way press freedom or right to information will ever be curtailed.
Well, in its current form the bill wasn’t too bad either. In a nutshell, it sought to provide access to official information, establish a Freedom of Information Commission and specified the procedure to make a request for information and the grounds on which the request could be denied. The opposition had combined to support the Bill but fell far short of lawmakers to take it much further.
“The right to information is a fundamental democratic right, not a privilege of government,” the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific said. “The decision by the Sri Lanka government to block a bill designed to enshrine the right to information is an ominous move where media freedom remains in serious peril,” it said.
The government’s treatment of the bill wasn’t surprising; it’s the same regime which continues to enforce Emergency laws, maintain strict high security zones and controls an army which breaks up political meetings and a police that fire at unarmed protesters – all this two years after the end of the civil war.
There’s been a low-key campaign for years to get the right to information bill passed in many avatars. In 2009, Indian social activist and information activist, Aruna Roy, gave a lecture in Colombo on why such a law was important – why accountability was important, especially in a powerful, all-encompassing Presidency.
But the government is surely not afraid of answering a few queries from its own people? The same people who brought the UPFA repeatedly back to resounding power in one election after the other. Or is it best to gag those same citizens lest they ask uncomfortable questions?