By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrama

Acting leader of the UNP Karu Jayasuriya is resolute in his stance to get the Right to Information Bill passed in parliament following the defeat of the Bill presented to parliament by him. “I will engage with other political parties in the opposition to examine what possibilities exist to bring the Bill to parliament once again as a new Joint Opposition Bill,” he told The Sunday Leader. He says that Right to Information is important to any society that believes in the principles of democracy and a government that is responsible, transparent and accountable to the people.

Excerpts:

Q: The government has defeated your second attempt to present a Right to Information Bill to parliament. What action do you now plan to take?

A: That’s right. That was the second attempt in nine months. Well, as for what I now plan to do, I think that question has two aspects to it. First, it is a citizen’s right that gives strong emphasis to freedom of expression and therefore it is fundamental to the democratic process. I believe that the next course would be for this to become a strong social demand that would enable the Bill to gain more credence. It is in the interest of the Sri Lankan public that the government upholds their right to information. It is therefore also a part of the public’s responsibility to recognize this as a democratic right and use that knowledge to pressure the government to legalize the Right to Information. I think the media also has a role to play in this, by way of providing a voice for this need.

Secondly, within that context, I will take responsibility as a legislator and as an elected MP to strengthen the voice of the people in demanding the Right to Information. I will engage with other political parties in the opposition to examine what possibilities exist to bring the Bill to parliament once again as a new Joint Opposition Bill. I am optimistic about this approach because I do not see why other political parties in the Opposition would oppose this kind of legislation, which upholds the peoples’ right to know and therefore, safeguard democracy as a whole.

Q: Why do you think a Right to Information Bill is important for Sri Lanka?

A: The Right to Information is important to any society that truly believes in the principles of democracy and a government that is responsible, transparent and accountable to the people they represent.

If this is the vision the people of this country have for Sri Lanka, then the Right to Information Act becomes extremely important. Virtually every functioning democracy has passed such legislation, even though the implementation of this type of legislation is often a slow and carefully deliberated process. Only governments and rulers who are terrified of letting the people have intimate knowledge of the processes of governance that refuse to even consider such legislation. So it is necessary to question the government’s true reasons for defeating this Bill. Such legislation would empower the media to ask the government for specific documentary evidence on the work of any public institution, thereby giving the people of this country greater access to this type of knowledge and awareness. Knowledge and information are key to ensuring that the public make the correct decisions at voting time and also allows them to demand accountability from their political leadership.

Some people with vested interests would argue that what the people truly need are jobs and economic development and that legislation such as the Right to Information belongs more to nations that can afford to indulge in the ‘utopian’ standards of democracy. These are people who are afraid of accountability. Why would the public not benefit from a glimpse of how the country is run? Is it not in the public interest to know for example how dozens of acres of prime  property in the heart of the capital city is sold? What procedures have been followed, who the procurers are or how much they truly paid?

It is an absolute fallacy that Right to Information laws exists only in advanced democracies. In our own region, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all of which are developing nations and less than perfect democracies, have enacted such laws in a bid to create a culture of good governance and transparency. And these laws do not apply only to the big things that governments engage in, but could have a deep and meaningful impact even at village or urban council level. These laws would allow the public to have access to the specifics of how much money has been allocated towards building a road or a culvert in their city or village. It would allow them to hold their elected representatives accountable if such projects have been left incomplete or if the money is gone but the project was never implemented.

A young person could obtain information regarding employment in the government and the criteria applied for selection. It safeguards the rate payers’ right to know where their tax rupees are truly going and this is fundamental to maintaining trust between the people and their political leadership.

Q: Some government members have alleged that the Bill has been mooted by certain groups of the Tamil Diaspora and NGOs and is therefore a threat to national security. How do you respond?

A: Well that is the government’s standard response to any legislation, viewpoint or opinion they do not agree with or if such laws will not work to its own advantage. Whatever issue is raised, ranging from the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Panel Report to “arsenic” in rice, from protests against the Pensions Bill, to the Hambantota Port and military training for undergraduates, the stock answer is “Tamil Diaspora, NGOs and imperialist conspiracy”. Any issue that challenges the credibility of this Rajapaksa regime results in the government trying to hide behind these very amateur accusations, constantly raising the LTTE specter and using that fear to silence and suppress all other rights and liberties of the people. In this context it is even more crucial in my opinion that the Sri Lankan people return to being the politically astute and deeply aware public that it was before this regime commenced its propaganda surge.

All 80 plus countries that have enacted Right to Information legislation have their own “national security” issues and one might even say they are more acute than the ones Sri Lanka faces. Take India for example. They are deeply concerned about national security, especially after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. But they have one of the best Acts on Right to Information in this whole region.

Right to Information legislation does not ignore the importance of national security. There are always provisions included in this type of legislation to ensure that national security is not compromised in the process of ensuring the peoples’ right to know. It is nonsense to think that sensitive information pertaining to national security is going to appear in a Sunday paper because of this law. If so, no country in the world would implement it, and especially countries with many national secrets such as the US would be vehemently opposed to enacting such legislation.

The Rajapaksa regime should not assume that all Sri Lankans are gullible fools who cannot see that we are not the first country in the world attempting to pass this law but rather that dozens of nations have used it to make their rulers accountable. National security is not an excuse to block the citizens’ right to information on governance. This issue basically comes down to responsible, accountable governance.

From the very outset of my political career, I have stressed my desire to establish good governance principles in Sri Lanka. I have made it my personal mission to work towards the complete de-politicization of the public sector and that was why I fully backed the 17th Amendment from the very beginning. I believe that it is a national tragedy that the 17th Amendment that was enacted into law with the unanimous support of all parties in parliament has been made redundant by the enactment of the 18th Amendment, which completely reverses the independence of public institutions.

My interest in this Right to Information legislation is very similar. I firmly believe that this country needs a government that is transparent and accountable, for us to move forward as a modern society.

There is a very obvious parallel between the government’s desire to subvert the provisions of the 17th Amendment and its desire to squash the Right to Information legislation. In both cases, it works to the government’s advantage by allowing it to continue to politicize every public institution in this country in order to ensure complete loyalty to the regime and to ensure that the public do not have access to government information so that this government can continue to propagate the lies it needs to tell in order to ensure that the people remain suppressed and afraid, and therefore erroneously believe that it is only the Rajapaksa administration that can keep this country safe. This is completely untrue, but with constant repetition it has come to be the prevailing popular opinion. In truth, the people of Sri Lanka have never been less safe than they are under this current administration. This bill is about telling people the truth. And it is the truth this regime is most afraid of. That is the only reason this government is blocking this Bill. It has nothing to do with national security or any other alleged security concern.

Q: Who drafted the Bill that was presented by you to parliament?

A: The original Bill was drafted in 2004 by a Committee headed by the then Attorney General, K.C. Kamalasabesan P.C., then Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Representatives from the Legal Draftsman’s Department, Media Associations such as the Editors Guild and the Free Media Movement.

Q: Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa has said the government was preparing a Right to Information Bill. Have the opposition parties or the main opposition UNP been consulted on the matter?

A: No. Government mouthpieces say this kind of thing periodically. My own experience with the most senior leaders in this government is that they are totally against such transparent and accountable governance. So it is inconceivable that it would consult the opposition on this issue. If they are pressed to start a process through social demand, they would still try to diffuse it, or scuttle it. That is why the citizens and the media have to step in now.

Q: What are the salient features you feel need to be included in a Right to Information Bill that would be drafted for Sri Lanka?

A: All contracts and procurements at every level of the administration from the Central government to the Pradeshiya Sabhas, have to be open for the citizens to access information. All policy making at national and provincial level have to be open and where the citizens feel they should have access to information regarding those decisions, that information should be available. Therefore a sound mechanism has to be in place to allow citizens to actually enjoy that right.

It is a misconception to assume that this Bill only deals with national level issues that do not have a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of our citizens. On the contrary it is a law that is designed in such a way that government from the highest to the lowest levels become responsible to the people who elected them.

Q: It was the UNF administration that initially presented the Right to Information Bill in 2003. Why didn’t the then UNF government give the piece of legislation priority?

A: That UNF government had its own constraints – political and economic. It was the only government that was without an Executive President. It had to co-habit and that was a totally new cultural issue the UNF had to wade through.  More focus was then given to the peace negotiations and for economic development, having had the burden of taking over a government when the economy was below zero growth.  I agree there was a delay in addressing these fundamental issues. It would have been very much better had this Bill been pushed through at that time. But that delay provides no excuse for this government to delay it again and again. In fact, there is no guarantee that, even if the Bill been passed during the UNF tenure, this regime would not seek to repeal and subvert its provisions just like it has done with the 17th Amendment.

Q: How confident are you of the current administration actually presenting a Right to Information Bill to parliament?

A: That I think was made very clear before. If we could have any kind of confidence that this government would take any steps towards transparency, there would not have been a need to present this Bill as a Private Member’s Bill by me. I do not think the government has the bona fides to work on this issue. If they were truly interested, they could have called for amendments to the proposed Bill. We could have worked towards making it acceptable to both the government and the opposition. Instead, the government moved swiftly to squash it. It is not surprising that members who are mere sycophants of this government would oppose the Bill – it would be strange if the Rajapaksa regime backed this kind of legislation. What truly shocked me however was the fact that so many senior statesmen did not hesitate to follow suit. Vasudeva Nayakkara, Tissa Witharana, DEW Gunesekera and a few other senior parliamentarians are not considered to be run of the mill politicians. Once upon a time, they were men of principle, men whose allegiances to their parties and to the national legislature would override all considerations of political survival or expediency. Back in the day, they were the trailblazers, the eternal rebels. It is a tragedy that this government has reduced such great men to nothing more than passive followers. Not only is this government intent on ruining every public institution in this country, it is also adamant to shrink the stature of all those statesmen who were once revered for their principled positions.

Source: The Sunday Leader – 03.07.2011