Thursday, April 30, 2015

A right to know is a right for all

The 19th Amendment was passed yesterday. It remains this government's first real reform "victory", ironic given that it was approved after the 100-day program ended. During these past few months we've seen promises made and unkept. That's natural, given the state our politicians usually are in whenever they try to win the people's mandate. For the moment though, one important aspect of their program has been covered. The government is to be applauded for this.

But the 19th Amendment is not the be-all and end-all of President Maithripala Sirisena's mandate. In fact if one looks back at the main thrust of his election campaign the abolition of the Executive Presidency remains a top priority. This Amendment is only a starting point. Things do not end here.

It's only natural therefore that the next big reform is looked at reflectively. We're talking about the Right to Information Act. The RTI Bill is yet to be tabled in parliament, and going by the assurances given by the Media Ministry we can be sure that it will be tabled eventually. The problem is with time. It was originally meant to be enacted on February 20. Didn't happen. The Secretary to the Media Ministry Karunaratne Paranavithana promised that it would get enacted within the much talked about 100 days. That didn't happen either. We have been assured that it will get enacted and will become a fundamental right. In the meantime, we'll have to wait.

The RTI Bill is important and for reasons that are all too obvious. In a (political) culture which withholds information it's vital that access to it be made a statutory right. On this basis the Bill's provisions need to be looked at. Karu Jayasuriya came up with a Private Member's Bill in 2010. This we know. It was shelved when the then Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena promised that his government would present its own Bill within six months. Which didn't happen, of course.

We're living at a time when "access" is literally a click away. But not everything is open to everyone. It's natural that this document seeks to abolish the information-deficits successive governments have had a vested interest in preserving. These deficits go hand-in-hand with democracy-deficits, as even the United States has learnt in the past few years.

In this regard it's vital that the RTI Bill be amended to include all relevant institutions and not just the government. NGOs for instance are known to be secretive and to withhold information. Some of them have serious transparency and accountability issues. These must be addressed. Makes sense to have them covered by this document.

This move will be opposed. At a time when the line between "public" and "private" is fast blurring it's natural that information-deficits are defended not just by government bodies but by private bodies as well. Denying the citizen access, especially when it comes to financial accountability, would be manifestly unjust however. Covering the state alone won't do. The citizen deserves more. Especially so because he is governed by people who have promised good governance.

No Bill or for that matter law is perfect. There are several issues in the Draft RTI Act that need to be addressed. The trick isn't to get it passed with its deficiencies intact but to enact it without them the first time around. Karu Jayasuriya's proposals can't be rejected. They stand to reason. There is a balance between legitimate disclosure and justifications for denying such disclosure in the document. Any Act of this sort must address that to remain relevant.

The main deficiency is basically what I've pointed out before: a failure to acknowledge the blurring line between "public" and "private". Section 40 of the Bill defines "public authority", which to its credit does include private institutions that are connected with the government. Nonetheless the section excludes NGOs and other purported representatives of civil society. Furthermore the RTI Acts of both India and Bangladesh make such institutions accountable to the public. It would make sense to echo that here.

One can of course offer an argument for this: the state denies access too much. Correct, but that doesn't license access-denial in the non-state sector. Shady financial dealings in NGOs don't seem to come under this Bill. That's hardly desirable. The argument that the state deserves more scrutiny than the non-state sector sounds hollow if we are to assume that the latter is squeaky clean, at least relatively. It's not.

On this note calls made to include NGOs sound reasonable. Immunising them from public scrutiny, as Malinda Seneviratne has pointed out, would be cheating the citizen. The RTI Bill will have to be enacted without any of its faults. Getting it perfect the first time around would be next to impossible. But getting it passed without any of its major deficiencies would be a feat. Indeed, all things considered, it might well be this government's second victory.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com