By N. Vivekanandan –
It was a pleasure for the Managers’ Forum to Cohost with the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (Vadakkin Chapter) a discussion on the new RTI Act on 1 April, 2017. With peace, Jaffna is developing its own resources. The speaker was Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole of the Election Commission who lives in Jaffna.
The meeting was chaired by Eng. S. Suntharakumar, Director, Buildings Department, Northern Province. He extolled what his department has been doing after RTI. He mentioned staff training, noticeboards guiding lodging a request, revising the Establishments Code, and spreading awareness. After Hoole, Hoole was introduced, he congratulated Suntharakumar for being far ahead of many in Colombo in implementing RTI.
Hoole proceeded to give a captivating introduction to the nature of power, starting from Lord Acton’s “Power Corrupts. Absolute Power Corrupts absolutely.” Saying the secret to holding absolute power is secrecy itself, he argued that in a democracy centers of power are broken-up (decentralization) and information made freely available. As an example of the latter he cited how, although he was a member of the Faculty Board at Peradeniya, when he sought data on how Tamils were kept out of Production Engineering by teaching in Sinhalese, the man responsible who had become Dean ordered that he should not have access to the Faculty Board minutes. Even though denial of minutes was illegal even then, under RTI there are prescribed punishments. He reminded listeners of Albert Einstein’s dictum that ones ego is inversely proportional to ones knowledge. It is ignorant administrators with inflated egos who hide behind confidentiality and “you do not need to know.”
It is the urge to hold on to power that has set this good governance government off course by including corrupt persons in the cabinet and makes it difficult for the Prime Minister to be rid of them, he said. Mr. S. Thavarajah of the NPC asked how the RTI request to the Prime Minister’s Office for his declaration of assets was denied and replied by the Speaker. Hoole answered that there is no basis for the Speaker to be the Information Officer for the Prime Minister’s Office. Absolute Power has corrupted absolutely.
Hoole elaborated on his appointment as VC/Jaffna in 2006. He fled owing to LTTE death threats. His appointment was terminated a year later backdated to July 2006. He could not understand how a person was claiming in that year’s period to be Acting VC. To hold an Acting appointment, no one must be in that position. He wrote to the UGC for his status and never had a reply. It was years later that through court action he was able to access his papers. They showed the replacement appointment to be, correctly, to cover his duties, but the person so appointed and University of Jaffna claimed that person was Acting VC. In his biting humor, Hoole said that person was truly Acting as VC. On 2 Feb. 2016 the USAB ruled that Hoole
“is entitled to be recognized as Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna and accordingly direct the [University of Jaffna] to take cognizance that the Applicant was duly appointed as Vice Chancellor of the [University] from 12th March 2006 to 16th July 2006 and, that his name be recognized in the official records of the [University] as having served as Vice Chancellor and that he be paid all his salary and other emoluments and perquisites for that period.”
After many complaints over a period of 11 months, in Dec. 2016, the UGC got the salary paid but even today, 13 months later, the university lists the usurper as “Acting VC” and the UGC seems unable to “regulate the administration” of Jaffna, probably because the usurper is a member of the UGC.
That was Hoole’s point. Administrators cover up for each other and scratch each other’s back. The right to information is therefore most important and is the greatest development in Sri Lanka’s progress towards democracy. It is the way to break the mafia of administrators running our lives. As the UGC Chairman confirmed in a letter to Chandrika Kumaratunga, Hoole showed through an affidavit by Carlo Fonseka, Jaffna is doing this because he is a Christian.
Past Vice Chancellors of Jaffna: Hoole’s place Usurped by a UGC Member 13 months after USAB Order
Thereafter Hoole described the RTI Act, covering its scope, how to request, processing of requests and its exclusions. It was a very useful exchange as the audience raised questions.
Hoole asked whether voter lists held by the Election Commission need to be released. It has been argued that companies will make money from this information selling mailing lists. However, Hoole held that the law makes no exception for people making money from information obtained through RTI. Our thinking a law is bad, is no excuse to break the law.
There are other objections to releasing voter lists, however. One is that the voter rolls may indicate that an elderly woman is living alone, and that information may expose her to danger. Therefore it is argued that it is “Personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the larger public interest justifies the disclosure” (Section 5(1)(a) of the RTI Act).
But then, is our address personal? May be in Colombo, but not in rural areas where everyone knows who lives where. Remember, moreover, this is the information age. When we use the internet, our IP address makes public exactly where we are. When I Google for say shoes, the information that I am looking for shoes is sold, and I am soon inundated with advertisements for shoes. We now operate internationally and must interpret privacy accordingly.
Indeed, making mailing lists from voter registers might be argued to be a public activity to inform voters of policy issues or useful products. In the US Hoole used to get alerts when a child molester became his neighbor, And therefore such information is not an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.” Section 5(4) says “[A] request for information shall not be refused where the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the harm that would result from its disclosure.” Is harm not done when educating the public though mailing lists is aborted?
Hoole inclined to the view that whenever possible information should be released to strengthen RTI and democracy. Voter information, which is third party information to the Election Commission needs interpretation under Section 29(1): “Third Party Information which has been treated as confidential at the time received.” Therefore since no confidentiality was requested by voters or promised by the Commission during voter registration, information presently held has to be released. However, in future, the Election Commission may ask voters if their information is to be treated as confidential and then refuse as appropriate.
A point Hoole made is that with so many ways to interpret these rules, ultimately the courts will settle these issues. With such judicial decisions, our RTI ratings will change. Already the Ministry of Health has refused innocuous information. The RTI Commission needs to deal with it and how such appeals go will determine our RTI rights.
For now, we have a good law. As rated by Canada’s Centre for Law and Democracy, here is how some countries fare out of 150: 1) Mexico 136; 2) Serbia 135; 3) Sri Lanka 131; 5) India 128; 34) UK 100; 35) Russia 98; 49) Canada 90; 57/58) US 83; 57/58) Australia 83; 82) China 70; 89) Israel 66; 111) Austria 32 – the last of the RTI Countries. Singapore and Malaysia have no RTI Laws as to be expected.
Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 was the first RTI Law. The US does poorly because its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted in 1966 over opposition from President Lyndon B. Johnson and before the civil/human rights era. It has too many exclusions and applies only to Federal Institutions. As in Sri Lanka, in the US too, officials do not release information unless they really have to. For example when some university faculty suspected favouritism in the promotion of a woman, and asked for her dossier, the university blacked out almost all her evaluations on grounds of privacy. Professor-grade academics are evaluated there with 30% for teaching, 60% for research and 10% for committee work. This professor got 4/4 for teaching which was therefore not blacked out. But all evaluations for research, usually the only thing that matters, were. However, they forgot to redact “she is just beginning to publish,” thereby giving away the information that she had done no research. Bosses everywhere cheat and need monitoring.
Like muscles, we must exercise rights to make them grow, concluded Hoole. This is why the RTI Act prohibits asking why of someone requesting information. We need nobody’s permission to exercise rights.
Suntharakumar presented an IESL Thank-you Souvenir to Hoole.
N. Vivekanandan – The Managers’ Forum, Jaffna