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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Strangely the Media has Gone Mute on a Rights Bonanza: The RTI

International organisations rate Sri Lanka RTI draft one of the best in the world; As key beneficiaries, media should lead the process of deliberation .

The New Year that begins today will probably open a new chapter in the history of democracy in Sri Lanka with the legal acceptance of the people’s right to access information – and guaranteeing their rights to question the system. Sri Lanka will probably join the long list of countries that have provided its people this universal human right that had been denied for over a decade since it was first drafted.

Some sectors of society still doubt the sincerity of the government in promulgating such laws. But, to my mind, it is now beyond any doubt. The leaderships of the government – both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are committed to the cause and hopefully the draft bill would have a comfortable passage through the House within the first quarter of the year. If the same dynamics within Parliament remain intact as seen during the budget voting where it received a two-thirds majority, the RTI Bill would also go through comfortably.  As highlighted in one of my previous columns, there are three necessities with regard to the RTI in its entire process. The first is to have laws of international standards. The second is to establish a sound system of implementation of the law with proper human resources and effective mechanisms 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. Also a father whose child had not been admitted to a deserving school should be able to question the system of his own rights.

On the first requirement, we have come closer to a decent end, yet with some reservations. The draft bill is now being deliberated in various quarters of society, but with a few engagements of the public. For the satisfaction of those who drafted the bill, many international rights organisations have  commended the document rating it among the best in the world.  According to the global RTI ratings of the Canadian based rights organisation -Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), it has received 120 marks out of 150. “This score puts the draft Act in a  respectable seventh position globally, below, Serbia, Slovenia, India, Liberia, El Salvador and Sierra Leone. Other strong performers from South Asia include the Maldives (116 points), Bangladesh (107 points) and Nepal (104 points),” said CLD in its assessment report on the draft bill.

“Although Sri Lanka is a relative latecomer to this area – being the only country in South Asia apart from Bhutan that has yet to adopt an RTI law – we welcome the fact that Sri Lanka finally seems to be bringing to fruition a project that started nearly 14 years ago”, said Toby Mendel, Executive Director of CLD. “Although the draft Act is robust, we hope that the relevant authorities will take advantage of this unique opportunity to introduce further improvements to it to create excellent RTI laws.”

The draft Act has a number of positive features, including a broad scope, a narrow regime of exceptions and a good package of promotional measures, he added.

A spokesman for the global rights based entity Article 19 told this writer a couple of weeks ago in Yangon that they were struggling to find some loopholes in the law to make critical comments. “But we managed to find only three minor issues,” he said. In its official feedback, Article 19 hailed the draft Bill through carefully selected words which are usual when dealing with governments. “The draft Act has a number of excellent features,” said Thomas Hughes, its executive director.

Both the CLD and Article 19 provided some inputs to a number of areas where further improvements were recommended.

In a similar effort, local civil society organisations are also deliberating the draft and attempting to bring suggestions before it is taken up in the House. For example, Transparency International Sri Lanka conducted several consultative rounds with different sectors of society in finalising  recommendations for amendments. Weak whistle-blower provisions, composition of the RTI commission, absence of an Indian like penalty system for delayed RTI requests, were among the concerns – both at local and international levels.

However, having the best law in the world does not make any sense if that law is not properly implemented.

All these attempts are to make a robust law and we are almost there, I hope, if something similar to the 19th Amendment does not occur due to heavy bargaining within the House. This may not be an issue given the present strength of the government displayed during the budget voting. But interestingly some key members of the pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa camp in Parliament are now reaching out to several civil society organisations offering their voices at the House for bringing “positive changes” in the Bill. Their concern is strange as they were the very people who vehemently blocked any move to bring this piece of legislation during the past few years. “Handle with Care” should be the motto when dealing with these characters.  But as I mentioned in my previous columns, the media is yet to provide space for deliberations on the draft or at least to generate a wider public discourse. Being key beneficiaries, the media should lead the process of deliberation, especially for the greater public interest. But it is dead silent. Strange enough, even the state media is not highlighting the achievement of the government in drafting a sound law. The passive Sri Lankan passive media landscape continues to mingle with day-to-day spicy events, rather than play a role for a better democracy in the country


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