02 March 2016

Get cracking on the Right to Information Act

A version of this article was published as the Editorial, Sunday Island (February 28, 2016).  Yesterday (Tuesday, March 1, 2016), the Deputy Minister of Paliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Karunarathna Paranawithana said that the draft Act will be placed before Parliament for the first reading next Monday (March 7, 2016).  

 When the campaign staff of Maithripala Sirisena started articulating the when-elected plans, neither he nor his spokespersons were taken seriously.  It’s not their fault.  Election-time, after all, is all about promises, never mind their doability.   How many times, for example, have we heard the slogan, ‘I will abolish the executive presidency if elected’? 

The fact that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation got the 19th Amendment passed, even with its flaws, was therefore a remarkable and happy departure from past practices pertaining to manifestos and their implementation.  No one can be faulted therefore for hoping that the rest of the promised reforms would get implemented, although about 300 days have passed since the end-date of the 100 Day Programme came and went. 

It wasn’t going to be easy of course.  First, there was the General Election.  That sent everything to the back burner.  Then there was the period of limbo when those in power couldn’t name a cabinet.  The daily grind of governing can also get in the way of making laws.  We had the case of a little girl being raped and murdered, we had the issue of the National Anthem being sung in Tamil, we had a debate about how ‘Danno Budunge’ should be sung and now we have ECTA. 

Some of the distractions are not of the government’s own making, but some certainly are.  It makes sense politically. Who, after all, talks of the famous ‘100 Days’ now? It is almost a year since Maithripala Sirisena and almost all the SLFP high rankers spoke at a rally pledging to put the entire elections system right, but is there any talk of the 20th Amendment now?  Political expediency is not what the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government promised us, however. 

Today we are offered the media-bytes of impending arrests, arrests and promises of further action.   This might keep the vociferously anti-Rajapaksa supporters of the government happy and annoy those on the other side, but righting wrongs is not only about punishing wrongdoers.  It is about correcting the flaws of the system. 

We are still in the early days of the independent commissions.  There is a woeful absence of information about how these entities operate.  It will take time and we should be patient.  However, there’s nothing to stop the government from going ahead with complementing reforms, in particular getting busy with the Right to Information Act. 

The draft was ready more than 10 months ago.  The input of all relevant sections of society was obtained before it was put together.  And yet, apart from the odd ‘we will do it soon,’ there’s no sign of it getting done.

Since anti-corruption was picked as a veritable pay-off line by the Sirisena campaign and has been retained as a ‘must-say’ in the rhetoric of this government, one would have thought the Right to Information Act would have been treated as a matter of priority.  Given the fascination that the government and its defenders demonstrate about the need to be squeaky clean with money, why is this important weapon against financial wrongdoing being constantly footnoted? 

The Right to Information Act would, over time and with regular reference, create a more alert and pro-active citizenry.  It would put politicians tempted to bend rule or even brazenly rob on the back foot.  They'd be forced to think twice before doing ‘what was always done and what every did and worse, were expected to do’. 

And it’s not just the politicians and others in the public sphere that would have to be careful.  A comprehensive RTI Act would cover other organisations too.  Each and every entity obtaining money from the government, foreign governments or international organizations would be open to scrutiny.  This is the case in the RTI Acts of Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and South Africa. 

[Read 'The Right to Info Act: Get it right the first time' -- Editorial, 'The Nation' about 10 months ago]

A few days ago the Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages, Mano Ganesan revealed an interesting fact to Parliament.

"The government had not received financial statements from NGOs in respect of funds received from overseas donors since 2000, barring the period 2011-2013.”

Minister Ganesan revealed that “NGOs had received Rs. 13.9 bn (Rs 13,926,619,942) in 2011, Rs. 11. 4 bn (Rs.11,488,308,761) in 2012 and Rs. 10.8 bn (Rs.10,840,293,929) in 2013”.  

If these are typical figures for a year, we are talking about a figure in the region of staggering Rs 150 billion going unreported. 

Minister Ganesan would no doubt take steps to find out who received money, how much money was received and how the money was spent. 

President Sirisena and his supporters, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to put things in order.  We do understand the need to prosecute those who are found to have indulged in financial fraud, but what is more important in the long run is to put in place a system that makes fraud difficult or impossible.   In the case of the former ‘need’ the exercise cannot be selective.  Minister Ganesan will be naming names or should be.  In the case of the latter ‘need’ then the RTI has to be seen as one of the most important instruments of prevention, provided of course that the draft and the final document curtain relevance and limit it to state entities and individuals therein. 

In light of all this, perhaps it is high time that the President and Prime Minister move the forces they command to get the RTI Act back on track.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  He can be contacted at malindasenevi@gmail.com