Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Enough with the state secrets

Namini Wijedasa

WITH all the negative publicity Sri Lanka is generating internationally, even a few tentative steps towards enhancing democracy could go a long way. And yet the government seems hell-bent on taking the opposite direction.
On June 21, the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) used its parliamentary majority to defeat a draft Freedom of Information law presented by Karu Jayasuriya, the deputy leader of the main opposition United National Party.
The discarded bill acknowledges the need to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities. It deems that every citizen shall have a right of access to official information which is in possession, custody or control of a public authority. The UPFA opposed the bill and blocked its debate. Jayasuriya’s motion received 34 votes in favor and 97 votes against while 93 members were absent.
The government’s rejection of the proposed legislation exposes its well-documented tendency to keep a stranglehold on official information. For a regime controlled by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a politician who was once labeled ‘the reporter’ by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, this government is remarkably paranoid about allowing public access to information.
The philosophy has been to keep a tight control on both access and disclosure, resulting in vast amounts of crucial information being deliberately withheld from the citizenry. Journalists are often directly or indirectly dissuaded from pursuing subjects that the regime unilaterally decides are unsuitable for public consumption, merely because they would reflect negatively on the ruling party and its brand of governance.
This behavior is assumed to be a prerogative of the state whereas the opposite is true; the voting public has an inalienable right to information, particularly about state expenditure, and to withhold it from them is the hallmark of an autocratic, insecure government.
Jayasuriya told parliament that 85 countries have legalized the right to receive information while another 16 are in the process of doing so. In South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have already implemented the legislation.
He observed how Sara Palin, former Alaskan governor, as vice presidential candidate for the US Republican Party, was ordered to release to the public all electronic mail she had received while she held office.
In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the government has chosen not to reveal the contents of a commission report about wartime arms purchases. Although the document could contain information about irregularities implicating politicians and military officers, no citizen —despite paying taxes and exercising franchise — can request or demand to see the report because there is no legislation empowering him to do so.
This is just one of many presidential commission reports willfully concealed from the citizenry despite all of them having been supported by state funds. In fact, the findings of presidential commissions of inquiry are rarely, if ever, released.
It is not only such documents that are deemed confidential. All nature of information is routinely kept secret for the sake of political expediency. This includes details of vital legislation such as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the final version of which was drafted and veiled in secrecy till it was no longer possible to maintain the status quo. Among other things, the amendment, which was rushed through parliament as an urgent bill, removed the two-term limit on being elected to the office of the president.
More recently, the government floated a bill to set up a private sector pension scheme that only a few favored insiders knew anything about. So obscure was this legislation that it prompted a spate of protests, some of which turned violent, before it was suspended till further notice.
Secrecy is also applied to documents that define or provide breakdowns of project costs. There is no easy way to determine how much of our money is spent on maintaining the massive cabinet — what amounts are handed out to meet fuel, housing, telephone, staff, utility, education, foreign travel and other expenses of ministers. Journalists who try are advised to ask the public administration ministry which in turn requests them to approach each individual ministry. They might also be instructed to question the office of the cabinet of ministers which merely says it cannot divulge the facts.
Separately, the government admits that it holds a large number of Tamils — LTTE suspects — in detention but does not reveal how many. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission suggested in its interim recommendations last year that the government publishes a list of names of detainees. The government has not done so.
The situation is dramatically different just across the Palk Strait, in India, where the Right to Information Act was passed in 2005. This law is being widely used by ordinary citizens to expose corruption. A robust RTI movement keeps the public sector on its toes as citizens and activists turn to the law to expose scandal after scandal.
It is enough to make civic-minded Sri Lankans weep with envy. Here, citizens are routinely denied basic information that could help them make educated choices, particularly at election time. Diverse strategies are employed to withhold information from journalists. This includes buck passing, avoidance, feigning ignorance, lethargy, refusal and procrastination beyond humanly tolerable levels.
It is high time that Sri Lankans had a Right to Information Act and no political party in the country — notwithstanding how many wars it won or how many terrorists it killed — has a moral or any other right to deny them this.
If it is okay to do it, why is it not okay to have it reported?
– The writer is a senior journalist in Sri Lanka. __


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