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Editorial

The Right to Information is recognised as one of the most fundamental rights in the modern world. What really is ‘right to information’? It essentially means that the public is empowered with facts, information and figures related to Government initiatives, projects and finances. In other words, the concept of right to information ensures transparency and accountability in Government projects and finances.

For example, if the Government says it had spent Rs.50 million per kilometre of a new stretch of road, the public should have the right to know how and why that tender was awarded, why Rs.50 million is needed and how much will be spent on the whole project. Every project should be permeable, but in case the relevant information is not divulged by the authorities, the public should have a mechanism to seek the same. This is exactly the purpose of having Right to Information (R2I) legislation. In the absence of R2I, there is greater room for the misappropriation of public finances and misconduct by officials and politicians.

There is a belief or rather misconception in society and even among journalists that R2I is for the benefit of the media. While this is partially correct, the real beneficiary of any R2I legislation is the public. R2I enables the public to query about Government projects and get exact figures and facts on the same. In countries such as India, where R2I is well entrenched in the law books and in the public consciousness, anyone can write to a Government Department and get precise and accurate information on local or national projects. The media can highlight the information thus obtained, giving it a wider audience. The whole process does strengthen media freedom in the end.

Although R2I was very much on the cards during the previous UNP administration of 2001-2004, the process could not be completed due to the change of Government. The next Government led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa blocked all moves to enact R2I legislation from time to time, citing flimsy excuses. The main excuse was national security concerns, but they never mentioned that R2I legislation explicitly prevents information that affects national security from reaching the public domain. The real reason for keeping R2I was most likely to be the opaque nature of the previous government’s financial transactions which were shrouded in secrecy.

On the other hand, a pledge to present a R2I Bill was a prominent feature of the 100 days manifesto presented by President Maithripala Sirisena. A lot of preparatory work has already been done on this Bill, which will be presented in Parliament soon. Significantly, the Right to Information Bill will have constitutional status, according to Media Ministry Secretary Karu Paranawithana.

Thus R2I will become a fundamental right in the country. This is a momentous turn of events that could not have been foreseen even a few months ago. Once R2I becomes a basic right, there will be a fundamental shift in the way in which the Government works. It will no longer possible to hide any details from the public and misuse public funds.

However, in order to allay any fears on national security and privacy, certain constitutional changes are being proposed. For example, no one will be able to query about the types of weapons owned/procured by the Armed Forces or about the private life of a prominent politician. It is also heartening to note that the lawmakers are studying several South Asian models and working papers including the Right to Information Bills submitted by the Sri Lanka Law Commission, Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe and Public Administration Minister Karu Jayasuriya as well as the Right to Information Acts of Bangladesh and India.

Both of these are well established models which will enable lawmakers to conduct a comparative study, given the similar socio-cultural and political landscapes and to derive certain clauses that suit our particular requirements. It may also be prudent to peruse the advanced R2I systems in Western democracies which are ideologically close to the democratic principles cherished in this country.

The R2I legislation is part of the drive towards good governance espoused by the Maithripala Sirisena administration which faces the onerous task of putting things right in just 100 days before the next General Election. This must also be appraised in the context of many other measures that have already been taken to bolster media freedom, such as the unblocking of websites critical of the Government, facilitating the return of exiled journalists, giving a free hand to State media and restarting investigations on attacks on journalists during the previous regime. R2I is one of the most progressive measures ever initiated by a Sri Lankan Government since the country obtained independence 67 years ago and will help usher in an era where transparency and accountability will reign supreme. 

From Daily News : http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=editorial/right-information