Will Asia’s gem lose its lustre?

Wednesday, 21 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Will the emerging ‘Miracle of Asia,’ ‘the Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ and the ‘most attractive investment destination of South Asia’ lose its lustre if there is no openness on governance, a culture of transparency with right to information, freedom of expression and open intellectual debate of national and socioeconomic issues? With the Maldives expected to enact a Right to Information Law within weeks and over 90 countries around the world having already implemented some form of freedom of information legislation, will Sri Lanka be an ‘outstanding’ nation in the world league tables? Did the CEO of SriLankan misrepresent facts? The media reported recently that the CEO of SriLankan Airlines, at a public presentation, had justified the loss made by SriLankan and Mihin Air last year, on the basis of value addition to the tourism sector. He is reported to have stated that by operating the unprofitable European routes and bringing in tourists to the country, the airline was making a significant loss, but was in fact making a strategic contribution to the value addition in the tourism sector of the country. Did the CEO of SriLankan misrepresent facts? Presuming 50% of the tourists to Sri Lanka last year (total tourists estimated at one million), used SriLankan Airlines and 40% of them were from the unprofitable European sector (i.e. excluding Middle Eastern and Asian sectors and the passengers merely transiting on the way to India and Maldives), 200,000 European tourists who flew in on Sri Lankan have led to the Rs. 20 billion loss (obviously the losses from this sector must be more, as the airline’s net loss for the year is after setting off the contribution from the other profitable sectors).That works out to a loss of Rs. 0.1 million per passenger flown from Europe by SriLankan. If only 40% is the net value addition the country from a tourist (i.e. net of outflows in foreign currency on imports of goods and services related payments), each European passenger must contribute Rs. 250,000 towards SriLankan Airline’s loss break even. Assuming a similar contribution is required from the passengers as margins of the downstream tourism sector, a European passenger must contribute Rs. 0.5 million during their stay in Sri Lanka. Based on an average time in Sri Lanka of five days per passenger, the required daily spend is Rs. 0.1 million or around US$ 800 per day. Citizens now need to know how many of the European tourists would contribute such a spend per day, to make it justified for SriLankan to make a loss of Rs. 20 billion and to justify such loss on the basis of a national value addition contribution through the tourism sector. The CEO should also provide citizens with a justification that only SriLankan can bring in these European tourists and no other internationally operating carrier could do so. How are tourist arrivals computed? Will the Ministry of Economic Development, the Tourist Board, the Airport and Aviation Authority or the Immigration and Emigration Department clarify the following: 1.How are the tourist arrival numbers computed? 2.Are non nationals arriving in Sri Lanka for the primary purpose of employment, and/or practice of a profession or vocation, for however short a period it may be, classified and counted as tourists? 3.Are Sri Lankan diaspora members with foreign passports arriving in Sri Lanka for holidays, family visits and other reasons classified and counted as tourists? 4.How many non-national persons were directly or indirectly engaged employment or professional/vocational services during the last 12 months in Government or State enterprises originated initiatives and projects and by the local private sector? Multiple investments in gas tank farms in Hambantota? Will the Ministry of Ports, Ministry of Economic Development or the Ministry of Investment Promotion clarify whether the Hambantota Magampura Port Development Project will include the following separate investments: 1.An investment by the Sri Lankan Ports Authority on an oil tank farm with 14 tanks under the investment is US$ 76 is also constructed at Hambantota Port. The tank farm consists of eight tanks for fuel bunkering facilities for vessels while three tanks for aero fuel and three tanks for storing LP gas. The 14 tanks will also have an overall capacity of 80,000m3.” (http://www.slpa.lk/news_events_186.asp) 2.Sri Lanka’s Laugfs Gas group has been give the nod to build liquefied petroleum gas terminal and a lubricant blending plant with investments of US$ 21.14 million at Hambantota Port. Both projects will serve export markets. http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/news/sri-lankas-laugfs-to-build-lpg,-lubricant-terminals-in-hambantota/1038703749 3.Have the national economic feasibility and justification of above multiple investments been established? Will strategic enterprises and State banks pass genuine ‘solvency’ and ‘going concern’ tests? As at the end of December 2012, provided the financial statements of the strategic enterprises and State banks are prepared strictly in accord with acceptable accounting standards, with impairment adjustments, how many of them will be able to pass genuine ‘solvency ‘and ‘going concern’ tests? Key economic performance indicators ‘massaged’ and ‘window dressed’? If one morning the Governor of the Central Bank, the Secretary to the Treasury and the Census Department Chief got up and looked at all the published Key Performance Indicators of Sri Lanka for 2012, including GDP growth rate, per capita GDP, inflation, net foreign reserves, budget deficit, current account balance and the fiscal gap, with integrity and independence and a commitment to the highest levels of professionalism, will they see any of them as ‘massaged’ and ‘window dressed’ and in need of correction, in a spirit of accepting their official duty to provide the people having the right to accurate information? Global trends on the right to information: A survey of South Asia The above publication by ARTICLE 19 (established to defend and promote the freedom of expression and freedom of information), Centre for Policy Alternatives, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a July2001 states: http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/south-asia-foi-survey.pdf Nine Principles Underpinning Freedom of Information (FoI) Legislation Principle 1: Maximum Disclosure FoI legislation should be guided by the principle of maximum disclosure, which involves a presumption that all information held by public bodies is subject to disclosure, and that exceptions apply only in very limited circumstances. Exercising the right to access information should not require undue effort, and the onus should be on the public authority to justify any denials. Principle 2: Obligation to Publish Freedom of information requires public bodies to do more than accede to requests for information. They must also actively publish and disseminate key categories of information of significant public interest. These categories include operational information, costs, information on complaints, procedures for public input, and the content of decisions affecting the public. Principle 3: Promotion of Open Government FoI legislation needs to make provision for informing the public about their access rights and promoting a culture of openness within the government. As a minimum, a FoI law should make provisions for public education and dissemination of information regarding the right to access information, the scope of information available, and the manner in which the right can be exercised. Also, to overcome the culture of secrecy in government, a FoI law should require training for public employees, and encourage the adoption of internal codes on access and openness. Principle 4: Limited Scope of Exceptions Requests for information should be met unless the public body shows that the information falls within a narrow category of exceptions, in line with a three-part test: The information must relate to a legitimate aim listed in the law; nDisclosure must threaten substantial harm to that aim; and nThe harm must be greater than the public interest in disclosure. nRestrictions that protect government from embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing can never be justified. Principle 5: Process to Facilitate Access All requests for information should be processed quickly and fairly by individuals within the public bodies responsible for handling requests and complying with the law. In the case of denial, a procedure for appeal to an independent administrative body, and from there to the courts, should be established. Principle 6: Costs The cost of access to information should never be so high as to deter requests. Public interest requests should be subject to lower or no fees, while higher fees may be charged for commercial requests. Principle 7: Open Meetings FoI legislation should establish the presumption that all meetings of governing bodies are open to the public so that the public is aware of what the authorities are doing, and is able to participate in decision making processes. Meetings may be closed, but only where this can be justified and adequate reasons are provided. To facilitate attendance, adequate notice of meetings should be provided. Principle 8: Disclosure Takes Precedence Other legislation should be interpreted in a manner that renders it consistent with the disclosure requirements of FoI legislation. It concludes as: “Freedom of information, including a right of access to information held by public bodies is now widely recognised as a fundamental human right, most commonly as an aspect of the right to freedom of expression. This is clear from the numerous authoritative statements to this effect, as well as the policy and practice of national governments, intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) and international financial institutions. Indeed, the rapid proliferation of freedom of information laws among IGOs, and in countries in all regions of the world, is a dramatic global trend and one of the most important democratic developments of recent times.” Freedom of information culture in Sri Lanka An article titled ‘No right to information in Sri Lanka’ by the Asia Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists states: “You would think that with fighting between Government forces and secessionist Tamils finished in May 2009, the Sri Lankan Government might ease its grip on public information – information which is really the property of the country’s citizens, not whichever administration happens to be holding political power. In 2004, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s Cabinet did approve a Freedom of Information Bill, but Parliament was dissolved and the bill never went further. The issue has been coming and going over the years. The last attempt at legislative change came in 2011, when it was defeated by the Government in Parliament. One Sri Lankan editor recalls President Mahinda Rajapaksa as telling a group of editors around that time that the country doesn’t need what has been relabelled as a Right to Information Act because he would answer whatever questions they might have. And it doesn’t look like that attitude is going to change. On 27 July, Secretary to the Ministry of Media and Information Charitha Herath told a meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC ) in Colombo that the Act will not be coming before Parliament any time soon. The reason: national security would be threatened if the general population knew what the Government has done, is doing, or might be considering doing. ‘It’s none of your business’ is the official attitude, even though the United Nations declared access to information a fundamental right in 1946. Under UN Resolution 59(I): ‘Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.’ Adding insult to injury, Herath’s statement was in answer to a question from an internship program for journalists and media officials.” http://www.cpj.org/blog/2012/08/no-right-to-information-in-sri-lanka.php Right to information culture a distant dream! With the lack of a genuine commitment to openness, repressive and undemocratic governance framework in place, State control over media, the State capture of not only independent public institutions (Bribery Commission, Human Rights Commission, the Central Bank and the SEC) but also the independent professional bodies (e.g. Organization of Professionals and Professional Institutes), the business sector seeking patronage as their way forward for growth and Right to Information Law and associated culture a far away dream, there is a need for civil society to find a new way forward. This was the conclusion of a recent wrap up review following the presentation by Kevin Goldberg, General Counsel, American Society of News Editors on ‘Right to Information in an Age of Instant Communication,’ facilitated by the American Centre. The undernoted questions were raised following the presentations: 1.Whether in any country, where there is no specific Right to Information Law in its statute books, a not-for-profit organisation runs a public access website, for citizens to seek information, and use same as a tool to pressurise the Executive to respond to such questions, especially if there were sufficient persons backing such request in an unbroken chain? 2.Whether there was a mechanism in the US for the public to petition the US Congress/Senate or a Consultative Committee, without the intervention of a Congressman or Senator? Kevin Goldberg’s responses were: 1.To his mind no such websites existed, as most countries where there were no specific Right to Information Laws in its statute book, were dictatorships and not democracies, which did not allow or even shut down such a potential site. However, some diaspora groups and dissidents ran sites in other countries, targeting the people of the country to access via proxy servers or regionally such sites were maintained for regional country citizens to access 2.There are ready opportunities for US citizens to petition using: n‘We the People’ initiative of Obama, to petition the White House (https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/) where as long as the cause petitioned has support, the administration certainly responds to direct petitions nAll congressmen and senators have their own websites and accept questions, info demands and respond to petitions and raise issues on behalf of citizens The Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) stated that LKIIRSS had launched a website ‘I Paid a Bribe,’ where the public can enter anonymously whenever a bribe has been paid. However, it appeared that it was only recorded and classified by Department of the State and a summary every month of the number of such entries would be published with a demand that the Department take corrective action. It appears that this initiative has followed similar initiatives in India, Kenya and Guyana (refer www.ipaidabribe.com/). The way forward? In the current context in Sri Lanka, Kevin Goldberg suggested that space, structure of support and networks be established by a local civil society ‘Focal Point on Right to Information,’ where different groups and individuals interested in: 1.obtaining information leveraging RIT processes and exchanges amongst activists, 2.promoting a RIT culture amongst citizens, 3.advocating and pressurising for RIT legislation and effective implementation of open government, 4.Professionals, academic and businesses interested in timely access to vital information, and 5.journalists and media institutions interested in communicating such information can come together regularly, supported by a small secretariat and provide a platform for realisation of above objectives as far as permitted and possible and even disseminate cleverly crafted messages using new social media tools, in pursuit of above. Who will provide the space for right to information? Which civil society group, with credibility and independence, will agree to take the lead in establishing the ‘Focal Point for Right to Information’? Will such a group with the objectives of the promotion of right to information , transparency, good governance, accountability, rule of law, social justice and anti corruption, with support from a donor, set up a website ‘We the People,’ to enable and empower citizens, to demand information from the Government and the Executive, as well as petition the President, the Parliament and the Supreme Court (using the rules of Supreme Court rules ‘Suo Motto’ that allow direct petitions) seeking information, transparency, good governance, accountability, rule of law, social justice and anti corruption? (The writer is a good governance activist and a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.)

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