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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Govt. rejects our right to know

  •     Long-delayed Freedom of Information Bill defeated in parliament, chink in Rajapaksa regime’s armour exposed
  •     Bill would have strengthened democracy amidst allegations of oppression and human rights violationsBy Sunday Times Political Editor

Weeks ago, Deputy Speaker Chandima Weerakkoddy was in the chair at a party leaders’ meeting that discussed Parliamentary business in the days ahead. A heated debate ensued when Karu Jayasuriya, co-deputy leader of the main opposition United National Party (UNP), announced he would move a Private Member’s Bill on Freedom of Information. Ministers Basil Rajapaksa and Dinesh Gunawardena strongly objected. They said in one voice that the government would not allow the Bill to become law ‘under any circumstances’.

Jayasuriya said he had the consent of Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to move the Bill. The government ministers said Jayasuriya was flouting a party leaders’ agreement that they would pass the first reading of the Bill, i.e. to permit it to be tabled in the House, but that it would then be sent to a Consultative Committee of Parliament for study.

When Jayasuriya mentioned this to his party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was originally to present the Bill as Leader of the Opposition (but was objected to as the government maintained that he could not do such a thing as Leader of the Opposition), Wickremesinghe told Jayasuriya that agreeing to that course of action would see a “toothless” Freedom of Information Bill being eventually presented to Parliament.

The Bill presented by Jayasuriya was what was approved by the UNP Cabinet of 2004, but could not be presented to Parliament because of the sudden dissolution in April that year. That Bill was drafted by a committee headed by the then Attorney General K.C. Kamalasabeyson, PC and comprised Dhara Wijetilleke, then Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, and representatives from the Legal Draftsman’s Department and media associations such as the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement. It would have been the first Freedom of Information Law in South Asia had it been passed then, but now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have their own laws in this area, while successive Sri Lankan governments since 2004 are clearly nervous of such a law here.

Private Member’s Bill

Objections notwithstanding, Jayasuriya presented his Private member’s Bill in Parliament last Tuesday. As vowed, the government defeated the Bill that would have given any Sri Lankan citizen freedom of access to official information. The draft Bill specified grounds on which such access may be denied. These included National Security matters, individual’s health records and trade secrets, and provided for the establishment of the Freedom of Information Commission; the appointment of Information Officers; setting out the procedure for making requests for information. In other words, the proposed legislation would have ensured openness, transparency and accountability in governance, and been a check on corruption.
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing the media with the backdrop of the Diyawanna Oya.

Minister Gunawardena said that the government would introduce its own Bill on the subject, a familiar refrain to ignore such a law that exists in several democratic countries, but not in Sri Lanka.

Jaayasuriya was naturally disappointed. He noted that Parliament had discussed how twenty million rupees had been spent for the construction of just one kilometre of road. Fly-overs have been constructed at exorbitant costs. Any citizen would have had the legal right to seek information from government offices on such matters if the Bill became law, he said. He said 85 countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have laws relating to the right to information. Whether the government or the opposition presented it, the Bill was of national importance. When it was first submitted in November last year, Jayasuriya said, it was withdrawn on the assurance given by the government that it would expeditiously submit similar legislation. Nine months had gone by but nothing had been done, he said. “We kindly request the government to compare this Bill with what you intend to table. Let the public enjoy the benefit without delay to ask questions on raging corruption and malpractice,” said Jayasuriya.

Policy changes of Govt.

The government’s stonewalling angered opposition UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe who has been campaigning for a Freedom of Information Act ever since he became Prime Minister in 2001. He convened a news conference last Thursday in the Opposition Leader’ office located in the third floor of the Parliament complex. Though he did not conduct the news conference there, he spoke to media representatives at the entrance to the office that provided a colourful backdrop of the Diyawanna Oya where the Parliament is located. Wickremesinghe said, “The Government has taken some steps in recent weeks to cripple Parliament. The convention of Ministers being answerable to Parliament has been violated. If there are policy changes, Parliament must be kept informed and such policy changes must be debated. But the government has bypassed this and adopted several policy changes.
“First there is the military training given to university students. This is not done anywhere in the world. Not even civil training is given. It is not done even in North Korea. We learnt about it from the media and then raised it in Parliament, and even then we were not allowed to debate it properly. Then there is a move to remove the primary sections from schools. This is also a policy change. A parliamentary committee has been appointed on education reforms and if there is a need to make changes it should be discussed there.

“Then there is a move to lease out some islands in Puttalam. Because of this move about 3000 people will be rendered homeless. This is also a policy change because this government opposed it when we decided to sell property to foreigners when the UNP was in power. So if there is a move to lease out the islands, then Parliament must be informed and through Parliament the people should be informed. There is the issue of the decentralized budget for MPs. It was started by the late Dr. N.M.Perera and strengthened by the late J.R. Jayawardene. That was followed by successive governments but now it has been stopped. This means the position of MPs has been devalued and they have to play second fiddle to officials.

Move towards dictatorship

“Then we tried to introduced a Right to Information Bill. Karu Jayasuriya moved it in Parliament and I seconded it but that was also shot down. What is the dirt the government is trying to cover up? Now there are more cover ups and more suppression including the silencing of the media. The government wants to cripple Parliament, abandon it in the middle of the Diyawanna Oya and move towards a dictatorship. We are ready to take measures to prevent this and protect the people’s right if the government does not allow discussion on these issues and does not keep Parliament informed.”

Jayasuriya said in Parliament that his Private Member’s Bill had the blessings of the then opposition when the UNP was in power in 2004. Sweeping changes in technology have helped people learn of developments that take place in any part of the world. However, in Sri Lanka, he said, the common man was deprived of that right. “If democracy is to be strengthened, that right should be given to the citizens,” he added.
Indian civic rights activist Aruna Roy who campaigned for a Right to Information Act in India explaining the merits of such legislation especially in eliminating corruption in the state sector as she delivers a lecture at the Sri Lanka Press Institute in July 2009

He pointed out that the government had appointed commissions to investigate procurement of military weapons. The report was handed over to the President. However, the people are not aware of its contents. If the Freedom of Information Bill became law, it would have empowered any citizen to seek those facts, he pointed out.

First to some highlights of the draft Private Member’s Bill on the Fredom of Information. “Every citizen shall have a right to access to official information which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority. The exceptions are disclosure of information that constitutes an invasion of privacy of any person, information that would cause harm to the defence of the State or its territorial integrity or national security, would cause danger of life or safety to any person, or be seriously prejudicial to Sri Lanka’s relations with any State or international organisation, where the information given or obtain from such State or international organisation is in confidence.

“Also exempted is disclosure of information considered to be vital in the public interest, relates to the assessment or collection of revenue by the Department of Inland Revenue or would reveal any trade secrets or harm the commercial interests of any person unless…

“Unless the person has consented in writing to such disclosure; or the disclosure of such information is considered vital in the public interest or could lead to the disclosure of any medical secrets or medical records relating to such person, unless that person has consented to such disclosure,
” The information is subject to professional privilege,

” The information is required to be kept confidential by reason of the existence of fiduciary (A legal obligation of one party to act in the best interest of another) relationship, the disclosure of such information could cause grave prejudice to prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders or examinations conducted by the Department of Examinations or a higher educational institution.

The Bill states that it would be the duty of Ministers and Public Authorities to maintain all the records in such a manner and in such a form as consistent with its operational requirements duly catalogued and indexed. It shall be the duty of the President and every Minister “to publish once in every two years and in such manner as may be determined by him, a report containing the following information:

” (i). particulars relating to the organisations, functions, activities and duties of the Ministry of such Minister, and of all the public authorities falling within the functions assigned to such Minister,
“(ii), the powers, duties and functions of officers and public employees of the Ministry and the public authorities referred to in paragraph a (i.e. the President and of every Ministry to whom any subject has been assigned), and the procedure followed by them in their decision making process;

“(iii), the norms set for the ministry and the public authorities referred to in paragraph (a), in the discharge of their functions, performance of their duties and exercise of their powers;
“(iv), rights, regulations, instructions, manuals and any other categories of records under the control of the Ministry and of which authorities referred to in paragraph (a), which are used by its officers and employees in the discharge of their functions, performance of their duties and exercise of their powers,
“(v), the details of facilities available to citizens for obtaining official information from the Ministry and the public authorities referred to in paragraph (a), and
“(vi) the name, designation and other particulars of the Information Officer or Officers appointed to the Ministry and to the public authorities in paragraph (a).”

Freedom of Information Commission

The Bill calls for the appointment of a Freedom of Information Commission, a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal. The Commission shall consist of three persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public life and who are not members of any political party and who at the time of appointment and while functioning as a member of the Commission do not hold any public or judicial office. The members of the Commission shall be appointed by the President on the recommendations of the President of the Constitutional Council and shall hold office for a period of five years.

Among the duties and functions of the Commission shall be to monitor the performance and ensure the due compliance by the public authorities of the duties under the Freedom of Information Act. They will lay down guidelines required to determine fees to be levied for the release of any official information by them and publicise the requirements of the Act and the rights of individuals.

Jayasuriya told the Sunday Times, “It is unfortunate the government had to reject a Private Member’s Bill on which there should have been unity. This is at a time when the government is facing international criticism over accountability issues. This would have been a good opportunity to show the world that the opposition and the government are united over a common issue over which there is much criticism worldwide.”

Activists in India have been wounded or even killed as they tap the 2005 Right to Information Act to expose government corruption said an article in the Christian Science Monitor in March last year. Some highlights: When Ajay Kumar asked New Delhi authorities last fall why a local politician had authorized the construction of private houses and shops on public land, he didn’t imagine the question would land him in the hospital.

“The activist had inquired using India’s 2005 Right to Information Act (RTI) Act, which allows any citizen to ask for information from any level of government, from village leaders to the office of the prime minister. It presents a cultural sea change in India, where for more than 60 years state bureaucrats have acted more like colonial masters than servants of the people.

“Mr. Kumar was stonewalled by the public information officer at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, so he followed procedure and appealed to a higher-level public information office in the MCD. When he still heard nothing, he went to the federal authorities, the Central Information Commission, which directed the MCD together with the police to jointly inspect the property. But when Kumar arrived on site in January, he was attacked by a mob of two dozen that backed the local politician. ‘Neither the police nor the people helped me,’ says Kumar, who was beaten in the head repeatedly by an iron rod, leaving him unconscious and bleeding profusely. Kumar is now pursuing the matter in court. Despite the attack, Kumar says, ‘RTI is the only tool that can bring an end to a corruption in India. Previously there was no point in asking [for information] because the applications were not replied to. At least now, since 2005, these public authorities are in some way compelled to answer queries of the public. It is a starting point………”

Govt. Freedom of Information

Two days after the government voted against the opposition’s Freedom of Information Bill, Cabinet spokesman Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, a one-time Media Minister, was to say that the government would bring its own Freedom of Information Act after “holding discussions”. He was answering questions from journalists as to why the government did what it did. He also said that the UNP deputy leader had not agreed to a decision of the party leaders, and that was why the government voted against the Bill.
What Yapa did not say was the fact that the government has already been “holding discussions” and a previous Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda presented to President Rajapaksa a revised Freedom of Information Bill shortly before the parliamentary elections of 2010. This had been done after Moragoda consulted the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), media groups like the Editors’ Guild and the Sri Lanka Press Institute and other civil society representatives. They revised the 2004 UNP draft Bill (which Jayasuriya presented this week in parliament), but the new 2010 draft is probably gathering moss on a shelf in the President’s office unless it has not been thrown into the Presidential waste paper basket already.

Yapa also said in that context that the government was committed to ensuring media freedom, but little did he realise that a Freedom of Information Law has nothing really to do with media freedom. It has everything to do with Citizens freedom — the freedom if not the Right, to find out how their money is spent by those in government, and how certain arbitrary decisions are taken by those in high places in the administration without being answerable to the people.

The opposition indeed exposed a vulnerable chink in the government’s armour this week.

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