One of the promises in the President’s manifesto which was broken was that relating to the Right to Information Bill. The manifesto pledged that the Bill would be introduced on the 20th of February and passed within three weeks. Some sort of leeway was also given, because it was actually a month later, on the 20th of March, that it was pledged the Bill would be passed.
There is no excuse whatsoever for having failed to get this done. True, the Right to Information was incorporated in the Constitution in April, but this needed to be fleshed out through a Bill. Such a Bill was indeed drafted, and circulated at the beginning of April, so I assumed all would be well. I found the draft generally satisfactory, though I suggested some changes to extend its scope, including posting electronically for the information of the public ‘the Declarations of Assets of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Secretaries of Ministries, Chairs of Public Authorities and all officials responsible for contracts or expenditure over the value of Rs 1 million…… Gifts over the value of Rs 500,000 received by such individuals should also be recorded.’
I also thought it desirable to publicize the qualifications and job descriptions of officers in addition to their powers, duties and functions. I also thought it necessary that Non-Governmental Organizations should be required to bring into the public domain information about themselves, while all Ministries should be required to make public the names of those NGOs for which they are responsible.
I sent these ideas in to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, though I had no great hopes of the government accepting them. I did however suggest that ‘it would be best, to ensure adherence to the norms of Parliament, that this draft be submitted to the relevant Consultative Committee of Parliament. It is sad that only a couple of Consultative Committees have thus far met, even though the Cabinet was constituted three months ago’.
Needless to say, nothing was done – except that Rajitha Senaratne announced a month or so later that the Bill would be brought to Parliament soon. Those were the days in which I took Rajitha seriously, and I was happy that he seemed committed to this as well as the Code of Conduct. But nothing more happened.
I hasten to add that I do not think Rajitha Senaratne was consciously lying. I believe he was full of good intentions and thought what he said was correct. But unfortunately he had neither the inclination nor the capacity to push things forward.
All this I put down to what might be termed moral laziness. But the events of the last month suggest a more worrying interpretation. The fact that the Deputy Minister of Justice should have obtained a gag order with regard to a Parliamentary Report that brought to light irregularities with regard to public money suggests that there is no great commitment to Freedom of Information amongst our current rulers.
He did indeed withdraw his request, perhaps when he realized how that seemed to confirm the fact that there was something to hide. But though I got the impression that he had not consulted older and wiser people on the COPE Committee before he made this unwise move, I cannot believe he did not check things out with the Prime Minister, given how closely he seemed to coordinate with him during the COPE hearings.
The impression I get then is that government would like to make available only such information as will not cause embarrassment. Indeed the way the Right is worded in the Constitutional Amendment suggests that there will be severe limitations on individuals seeking information for the public good, though I hope the Courts will interpret the provision liberally.
What is needed instead is a change of mindset, to entrench the understanding the information pertaining to public matters belongs to the public. Restrictions should be the exception rather than the rule, and the need for such restrictions should be argued, rather than the public having to argue for the right to any particular bit of information.
I have often pointed out previously that the best protection against corruption is provided by the public, and that is why I believe the Assets Declarations of all those in decision making positions should be freely available. In a related area, I introduced into the draft Higher Education Act the provision that The Authority on University Regulation, Funding and Monitoring should ‘Ensure that all institutions publish their income and expenditure accounts quarterly, and comply with audit requirements’. Furthermore it was specified that the Bursar of each University should ‘make all authorized payments, records of which shall be available on the websites of the university and distributed to meetings of the Faculty Boards, the Senate and the Council’.
I believe too that the deliberations of those in authority should be open to the public. After much fussing, I succeeded in having the Minutes of Consultative Committees made public, but I believe the same should apply also to the Finance Oversight Committees in Parliament. Ideally the proceedings of these Committees should be thrown open to the public, so that they can see whether and how their representatives are working on their behalf. This happens in other countries, and helps to keep the representatives of the people on their toes.
Of course in addition to information being readily available, there must be provision to digest this and seek clarifications. That is why it is important to have public participation in at least advisory committees of decision making bodies. This may not be necessary in Parliament if we make sure that the opposition has its due place in Committees, but it is certainly desirable in local bodies. The new Local Government Act does have statutory provision for Standing Committees, but there was a top down approach with members of these being appointed by the Councils. Instead they should be representatives of Citizens’ Groups, with Women’s Organizations playing a major role.
Transparency and Accountability go hand in hand, and we must engage in systemic reform to ensure that these two pillars of Good Governance are in place. But when we make provision for questions to be asked, we must also ensure that answers are given swiftly. There should be short and sharp deadlines, with provision for sanctions if these are not adhered to. And the Courts must interpret the provisions of the Bill liberally, remembering that they are the principal guardians of the people as regards the Executive.