The road to a Right to Information (RTI) Act that would promote transparency and accountability for good governance just got longer with the President’s statements to media heads on Tuesday. At a meeting with heads of print and electronic media President Mahinda Rajapaksa insisted that journalists did not require the RTI Act since they could ask what questions they wish and that they would be given access as long as the details did not concern national security or be covered by the Official Secrecy Act.
In the first instance it must be remembered that the whole point of RTI Act is to allow the public to have access to information. As public representatives the people who are appointed to power are supposed to serve the masses. However the exact opposite happens in many instances when people are not allowed to have information that pertains to public property and monies. This is exactly what the RTI Act would address, if Sri Lanka ever gets around to passing one, it gives any average person the right to demand information from any level of government.
This essential component is what could finally stamp out corruption in Sri Lanka. In a rapidly development oriented country, transactions are done almost overnight and large chunks of land and resources are sold off by the government. In such an instance the people have a right to demand information regarding the government’s action, for after all the responsibility should fall on them. Situations such as the Shangri-la sale of land would not arise at such a point and corruption would be minimised. Declaring large tracts of land as economic zones and giving them to development projects would be done in a more organised and transparent manner. This would also result in better management of resources and environmental protection.
India, Pakistan and Nepal are all countries that have RTI Acts because they have come to realise its need. In Sri Lanka the Bill that was presented to parliament and subsequently outvoted was composed by responsible stakeholders including the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka that was part of a committee headed by Attorney General K.C. Kamalasabeyson. It protects information pertaining to national security and other points of importance. A RTI Act does not release all information to everyone.
Moreover there are also many instances when journalists are refused information. Simply making an inquiry is often insufficient and few people have consistent access to top decision makers, including the President. Therefore the point that “information will be made available when a request is made” is completely invalid.
Development is a tricky element to deal with. Already there are people that have had their livelihoods disrupted in the Kalpitiya tourism zone and this is only one example of the dangers that haphazard development will produce. A RTI might be the best way to protect everyone and ensure that sustainable development happens at the same time. Equitable treatment of the poor will also be assured by such a move.
Despite the statement made by Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa that the RTI Act will be brought by the government the statements made by the President indicate otherwise. At this juncture what all responsible citizens can do is hope that the government sees the prudence of establishing a RTI Act and puts the country before self.