Friday, February 10, 2017

An Act against its creators

Daily Mirror‎‎‎: Sri Lanka: Friday, February 10, 2017.
The experiment of Transparency International in this regard seems to be too tough at the beginning of the implementation of the RTI Act.
Two civil movements, Sarvodaya and Transparency International (TI) had recently said that most of the Government institutions did not look prepared to implement the Right to Information (RTI) Act, citing that even the information officers appointed to some Government institutions were not properly educated on the Act, though the law came into force on February 3.
One should not be surprised on the situation given the administrative culture prevailing within the government institutions and the obvious inexperience on the part of the respective officials.
On the other hand, the experiment of Transparency International in this regard seems to be too tough at the beginning of the implementation of the RTI Act.
TI might have frightened the information officers at the beginning of their career by making requests on assets and liabilities declarations of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The anti-corruption watchdog might have thought that if the relevant Information Officers were prepared to handle such matters, which might have been very serious in their eyes, they would simply handle the information needed by the ordinary people.
However, it is doubtful whether the common man would get an idea by this experiment as to how he can use the Act, in respect of matters he is interested in.  It must be noted that the Act was an election pledge by the common candidate of the Opposition Maithripala Sirisena at the last Presidential Election and was supposed to be enacted during the 100-day-programme of the new Government, though it was passed in Parliament last year, more than a year after the scheduled date in the programme. Three members had been appointed to the RTI Commission with effect from October 1, last year but other two were appointed by the President by the end of the year, despite the recommendations by the Constitutional Council in respect of those appointments had been sent in October.
Also the 2017 budget did not contain a separate line item for the RTI Commission unlike for the other independent commissions.
However, even with such hurdles to encounter, the Act as well as the Constitutional guarantee given in respect of people’s Right To Information by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that was passed in 2015 was a great achievement by the Yahapalanaya government.
But it seems to take a long time before people and the media make use of the law, given the ignorance on the matter on the part of the people as well as the authorities concerned, as pointed out by the Sarvodaya and the TI.
The understanding by the politicians of the free access to information is sometimes puzzling.
For instance, Government’s Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne said way back in January 2015 (Soon after President Maithripala Sirisena took office promising an RTI Bill, among others) that there would be no more Spokespersons for the Armed Forces as the war had ended long before.
At the same time he has stated to the utmost displeasure of the media community 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.   In May 2014, Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V. Wigneswaran, the former Supreme Court judge, who is said to be fighting for the democratic rights of the Northern Tamil people, has issued a circular depriving the same people of one of their key democratic rights, the right to information.
His circular addressed to the Jaffna media said that they should not make any attempt to contact him at his office or residence.
Ironically, three weeks before the Chief Minister issued his unwarranted circular, another TNA leader, M.A. Sumanthiran was among the political party leaders who had attended the launch of a campaign for a Right to Information Act in Colombo on the World Press freedom Day, which fell on May 3.
The Daily Mirror had questioned the credentials of the statements by Minister Senaratne and the Chief Minister soon after they had been made.
Further raising doubts on the concern on the part of the authorities about people’s right to know the Daily Mirror reported yesterday that Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, who had earlier said that action would be taken against Perpetual Treasuries, the company accused of gaining undue profit in the controversial bond sale that took place in February 2015, had refused to divulge the specific action to be taken against the said company.
In spite of the Government having to be commended for the passage of the 19th Amendment with clauses about Right To Information and the RTI Act, the politicians of the very government and the officials under it would not be prepared to implement the law fully, given the fact that the present government also has already been accused of mega corruption such as the Central Bank bond issue.
Also apart from that the lethargy, arrogance, and the indifference that have become the norms of the Government institutions would push the authorities to hide behind the restrictions on information cited in the RTI Act and the 19th Amendment, to deny information to the people. That does not mean one has to have a pessimistic view on the situation with regard to gaining information. People’s right to information had not been recognised before the Act was enacted, apart from the right having been denied through various laws and regulations such as the Official Secrets Act, Sri Lanka Press Council Act, and the Establishment Code for the Public Sector.
Now, that the RTI Act overrules them, people and the media can fight for the right recognised by law. In fact, it was the right to fight for information that the country has gained in most cases, rather than gaining the Right To Information.
In fact there are good signs of some people attempting to put the Act to test.  
Apart from the TI’s application for information on assets and liabilities of the President and the Premier, the so-called Joint Opposition or the Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists, who had scuttled several attempts to adopt an RTI Act during their tenure had recently said that they would apply for the details of the bond scam under the current RTI Act.    Also a group of people in Batticaloa had said last week that they would seek information under the RTI Act, on the people who had gone missing during the war.
However, it will take a long time till the authorities are convinced that they would anyway be compelled to provide information, for the media to make use of the Act.
According to the Act, the process to access to information in some cases would be a long drawn one, if access was denied at the first instance.
Sometimes it might take months for an application to be successful (or not), if it had to go through the Information Officer of a public authority, designated officer, RTI Commission and finally to the Court of Appeal, in case of denial by one after the other. Therefore the Act for the moment is just only another topic for the media that seek hot news.
Even for the others to make use of the Act, an awareness campaign as well as an advocacy campaign by the concerned media and civil society organisations is needed in order to take the message to the grass-root level and persuade the people affected by the denial of access to information to fight back.