Politicians are subjected to higher levels of public scrutiny and the public interest mandates the disclosure of the asset declaration of a high ranking elected official such as the Prime Minister, said the Right to Information (RTI) Commission today in ordering the Office of the President to submit the Assets Declaration of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the years 2015 and 2016.
If Parliament had intended to keep asset declarations of politicians out of the RTI regime, it could have explicitly mentioned it in the RTI Act. That was not so and accordingly, the Commission stated that it is duty bound to take into due account the legislative intention in that regard.
The Commission also refused to accept the argument put forward by law officers of the Attorney General justifying the decision of the President’s Office that a 1970’s Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law would be enough to curb corruption and that the RTI Act need not be used for this purpose.
It was stated that existing laws, such as the old Assets Law would only come into play only upon complaints being received on corrupt acts of individuals or when the same is discovered inadvertently. As practice indicates, this occurs only in selected instances. On the other hand, use of the RTI Act enables a powerful check to be exercised on even potential corruption as this would deter those otherwise enticed to amass public wealth for themselves. It was concluded that the regime of transparency in the RTI Act prevails over the secrecy clause in the Assets Law requiring those who obtain declarations of assets, not to make them publicly available.
The Commission ruled that a 27th February decision of the Speaker last year that information pertaining to asset declarations of parliamentarians can only be released through the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law was not applicable to the factual situation before the Commission. That decision had been referred to by the President’s Office in refusing the information to the appellant, Transparency Internatoinal, Sri Lanka who then came before the RTI Commission in appeal.
The argument that the Secretary to the President stands in a fiduciary relationship to the President and therefore must hold information such as assets declarations confidentially was also dismissed. The Commission emphasized that, if so, then the RTI Act would be rendered a dead letter in the public service as this ground could be, for example, pleaded by a Secretary to a line Ministry vis a vis the relevant Minister.
On a related question regarding the assets declarations of Presidents, it was observed that even though legally, the President of Sri Lanka was not required to submit a declaration of assets (unless at the point of contesting for elections) and therefore, the same could not be ordered to be released, the law should be amended to make this a compulsory requirement.