Colombo Telegraph

Media Is Dead Silent On RTI

By Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya

International Organizations rate Sri Lanka RTI draft as one of the best in the world; But media is dead silent on RTI

The New Year that is being dawned from today will probably open a new chapter in the history of democracy in Sri Lanka with the legal acceptance of people’s right to access information – and equally guaranteeing their rights to question the system. Sri Lanka will probably join the long list of countries that have provided this universal human right for its people that had been denied for over a decade since it was first drafted.

Some sectors of the society still doubt about the sincerity of the government in bringing such laws. But, to my mind, it is now beyond any doubt. The leaderships of the government – both the President and the Prime Minister – are committed to the cause and hopefully the draft bill would have a comfortable passage through the House within the first quarter of the year. If the same dynamics within Parliament remains intact as per the budget voting where it received a two-thirds majority, the RTI bill would also go through a comfortable process.

As highlighted in one of my previous columns, there are three necessities with regard to RTI in its entire process. The first is to have a high quality law with international standards. The second is to establish a sound implementation system of the law with proper human resources and effective mechanisms throughout the country. The third and most important factor is public awareness. If a farmer in a rural village does not know how to make use of this fantastic tool that strengthens his entire lifestyle, both the above factors become null and void. Also a father whose child had not been admitted to a deserving school should be able to question the system for his own rights.

On the first requirement, we have come closer to a decent end, yet with some reservations. The draft bill is now being deliberated among various quarters of the society, but with a few engagement of the wider public. For the satisfaction of those who engaged in the process of drafting the bill, many international rights organizations have highly commended the document rating it as one of the best in the world.

According to the global RTI ratings of the Canadian based rights organization – Center for Law and Democracy (CLD), it has received 120 marks out of 150. “This score puts the draft Act in a very respectable seventh position globally, below, respectively, Serbia, Slovenia, India, Liberia, El Salvador and Sierra Leone. Other strong performers from South Asia include the Maldives (116 points), Bangladesh (107 points) and Nepal (104 points),” said CLD in its assessment report on the draft bill.

“Although Sri Lanka is a relative latecomer in this area – being the only country in South Asia apart from Bhutan that has yet to adopt an RTI law – we very much welcome the fact that Sri Lanka finally seems to be bringing to fruition a project that started nearly 14 years ago”, said Toby Mendel, Executive Director of CLD. “Although the draft Act is robust, we hope that the relevant authorities will take advantage of this unique opportunity to introduce further improvements so as to create a really excellent RTI law.”

The draft Act has a number of positive features, including a broad scope, a narrow regime of exceptions and a good package of promotional measures, he added.

A spokesman for the global rights based entity Article 19 told this writer a couple weeks ago in Yangon that they were struggling to find some loopholes in the law for them to make critical comments.

“But we managed to find only three minor issues,” he said. In its official feedback, Article 19 hailed the draft bill through carefully selected words which its usual style when dealing with governments. “The draft Act has a number of excellent features,” said Thomas Hughes, its Executive Director.

Both CLD and Article 19 provided some inputs to a number of areas where further improvements are recommended.

In a similar effort, local civil society organizations are also deliberating the draft and attempting to bring suggestions before it is taken up at the House. For an example, Transparency International Sri Lanka conducted a several consultative rounds with different sectors of society in finalizing recommendations for amendments. Weak whistle blower provisions, composition of the RTI commission, absence of an Indian like penalty system for delayed RTI requests, are among the concerns – both local and international levels.

However, having the best law in the world does not make any sense if that law is not properly implemented.

All these attempts are to make a robust law and we are almost there, I hope, if something similar to 19 Amendment does not occur due to heavy bargaining within the House. This may not be an issue given the present strength of the government displayed during the budget voting. But interestingly some key members of the pro-Mahinda Rajapakse camp in Parliament are now reaching out to several civil society organizations offering their voices at the House for bringing in “positive changes” to the Bill. Their concern is strange as they were the very same people who vehemently blocked any move to bring this piece of legislation during the past few years. “Handle with Care” should be the motto when dealing with these characters.

But as repeated in my previous columns, media is yet to provide its space for a sound deliberation on the draft or at least to generate a wider public discourse. Being a key member of beneficiaries, media should lead the process of deliberation, especially for the greater public interest – but it is dead silent. Strange enough, even the state media is not vibrant enough in highlighting the achievement of the government in drafting a sound law and bringing in positive amendments. The Sri Lankan passive media landscape continues to mingle with day-to-day spicy events, rather playing its due role for a better democracy in the country.

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