Right To Information Act
By Dileesha Abeysundera
With the announcement by the United National Party on 23 April that they are taking steps to present a ‘Right to Information Bill’ in Parliament, once again a discourse is taking place in our society about the people’s right to obtain relevant information.
After presenting the ‘Right to Information Act’ in Parliament by John Amaratunga, Chief Opposition Whip, Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that they will discuss this bill with the Speaker as soon as the Parliament sessions commences. Later the Speaker informed the UNP in writing that since this draft bill has been rejected in parliament on an earlier occasion, it is not possible to present the same bill again.
Therefore once again, the hopes of succeeding with the ‘Right to Information Act’ appears to be dim. Commenting on the situation, John Amaratunga, Chief Whip of the Opposition, stated that UNP is making necessary arrangements to present a new bill with relevant provisions under a different name. Mr. Amaratunga emphasized that whatever obstacles are created by the government, they will not give up their efforts in presenting the ‘Right to Information bill’ in parliament.
During a number of occasions in the past, United National Party attempted to present the ‘Right to Information bill’ and get it passed in parliament. But all these efforts failed due to the government interventions and opposition. In other words government deliberately and shamelessly attempted to show that there is no need in Sri Lanka for a Right to Information Act.
During the 2001 – 2004, UNP regime Milinda Moragoda, then Minster of Justice drafted a ‘Right to Information Act’ under the guidance of Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Editors’ Guild. This was approved by the Cabinet but could not be presented in Parliament as the government decided to go for a parliamentary election. In July 2010 the Leader of Opposition presented a ‘Right to Information bill’ in parliament as a private member’s motion. This was based on the draft approved by the Cabinet in January 2003. However the Secretary General of Parliament objected to this bill on the grounds that the Leader of Opposition cannot present a private members motion.
Thereafter the Leader of Opposition instructed Karu Jayasuriya, then the Deputy Leader of the UNP to present this bill. When Mr. Jayasuriya presented the ‘Right to Information bill’ on 23rd September 2010 as a private members motion, Dinesh Gunawardena, Chief Government Whip, informed the house that the government is in the process of drafting a ‘Right to Information Bill’ and it will be presented to parliament within six months. After a discussion Mr. Jayasuriya agreed to withdraw his motion.
The thinking behind Mr. Gunawardena’s statement was that the Government did not like presenting of such a democratic legislation in parliament. The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse does not have a genuine interest in ensuring people’s right to information. Needless to say that they made a false statement to the effect that government will present a bill and evaded the issue because of fear of such legislation.
After the withdrawal of the bill in response to the statement by Mr. Dinesh Gunwardena, the Speaker informed that the UNP could present this bill again. Accordingly Mr. Jayasuriya presented the bill again to Parliament on 21 June 2011. Government allowed the bill to be debated but voted against it. The bill was rejected as 99 votes to 32.
Through their action to reject the ‘Right to Information Act’ on number of occasions, the Rajapakse regime is nakedly exhibiting their anti-democratic nature and their attitude against the rights of the people. In order to maintain democracy and good governance in a country, it is obligatory to establish media freedom and the people’s right to get the information they need.
The significant fact is that the right to information is more important to the people than to the mass media. This is because when the people are able to get more information it broadens their rights. It will also promote the active participation of the people, to achieve transparency and good governance. There are many examples from the present administration where people’s rights have been curtailed due to the restrictions imposed on their right to get the relevant information.
The recommendations in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission also highlights the need for implementing the ‘Right to Information Act’. It has also emphasized the need to take necessary steps to put an end to the attacks, intimidation and threats directed at media institutions and journalists. In order to ensure the freedom of expression and the right to information, the LLRC has indicated that there should be independent inquiries on continuing reports of alleged intimidation and obstructions against the journalists and the media institutions. Report also states that the public confidence in the judicial process could be enhanced through inquiring, prosecuting and punishing those found guilty of such offences. A broader and more effective interpretation on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and publication ensured by the clause 14(a) of the Constitution has been given by the Supreme Court in a judgment delivered in 2004. According to this interpretation, it has been established that in instances where people are affected, they have the right to obtain the relevant information from the government and the government institutions. This has been a tremendous boost for promoting good governance, accountability and transparency in the country. The right to information will ensure transparency in all activities, prevent the misuse of public funds, and promote accountability of the government towards the people. While facilitating social responsibility, it will help the civil society and mass media to protect the rights of the people.
Currently there is a staggering increase in corruption, frauds and illegal transactions taking place in the country. As the right to information is restricted, very little information on these secret deals are available to the public. This helps to protect the culprits and conceal the frauds andcorruption from the people. If the right to obtain the relevant information is there, people or the mass media will be able to expose the government and the corrupt high officials.
India has made a great effort to establish good governance and transparency through the Right to Information Act approved in 2005, after a long process of consultation. As people are making use of the provisions in this Act, it is successfully implemented to bring about good governance.
More than 90 countries have legislated the right to information. The first Act in the world on ‘Right to Information’ was approved by Sweden in 1766. Myanmar and Sri Lanka are the only South Asian countries which do not have such legislation.
Right to information is a concept accepted worldwide and the need to legislate arises rarely. In countries like ours with unstable political environments, the interest regarding the right to information is at a low level. The general public is not adequately informed. As a number of attempts to get right to information legislation passed in Sri Lanka has failed, the future hopes of a successful implementation of a ‘Right to Information Act’ will depend on the response of the government.
Siri Ranasinghe – Sri Lanka Editors Guild – Editor Daily Lankadeepa
Right to information is essential to a country like Sri Lanka. The right to information is practiced in almost all the countries in the region. It is indispensable for democracy and good governance of the country. There is a demand from everyone in our society for right to information. It is an essential piece of legislation, necessary to establish good governance and transparency in the country, irrespective of the political divisions.
John Amaratunga - Chief Opposion Whip, UNP
When I presented the ‘Right to Information Bill’ in parliament, the Speaker informed that since this bill has been presented in parliament before and a order has been given, I cannot present the same bill.
Now UNP is working on presenting another draft bill as a private members motion. It will be based on the provisions approved by the Cabinet . We will complete all needed activities within the next two weeks.
The actions by the government clearly shows that they have no intention to establish the right to information. In order to promote good governance and democracy it is essential to ensure the right to information. Therefore UNP will work continuously towards the final objective of getting the ‘Right to Information Act’ passed in parliament.
R. K. W. Gunasekera - Former Principal of Law College and University Lecturer
People have a right to obtain information. It can not be hidden. Information must be provided when someone ask for it.
When Ranil Wickramasinghe presented the Right to Information Bill there were allegations that some important aspects have been left out. If there are such lapses it should be corrected.
Such an act should be presented only after informing the people and after generating a healthy discussion in the society. It is also necessary to compare the legislation in other countries as well as to discuss it in detail with the civil society groups and specialists in the relevant fields. Still it does not appear that people are well informed on this. They consider it as a matter for political parties.
In fact such an act should not be considered as something against the government. It is the responsibility of the rulers not to hide anything from the people. In other countries people have the right to ask for relevant information in writing.
You cannot have confidence in a government which suppresses the right to information. Even in the Parliament today, there are very few who conduct their affairs in a straight and honest manner.
If we respect the constitution we cannot go against such legislation. Going against the right to information legislation will amount to disrespecting the constitution.