It's a tricky path to peace
By Victor Ivan
The United National Front government is moving fast
towards an agreement with the LTTE for the purpose of bringing about a
solution to the ethnic crisis. Economically the country is in a state of
unprecedented bankruptcy. In economic development the country has gone
down to a minus growth. Although the fundamental problems of the country
are various all those problems are inter-twined.
Among all these problems, the most difficult and the most complicated
is the ethnic problem. Although there are other problems the country is
in such a state that none of those can be cleared while
the ethnic hurdle remains.
Although the country may need to continue with the war, it is not possible
in the present economic state. If a solution is required, the only option
available is the peace path. The political strategy of the new government
appears to be, to get over all other problems by bringing about peace.
In this state of bankruptcy, the country does not have the capacity
to stand up on its own without a policy of heaping burdens on the people.
However, an honest and powerful attempt to achieve peace is a way of getting
international wealth for the country.
The path towards peace is not easy. One little mistake could destroy
the whole country. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe does not have many optional
paths from which to select. He has only one.
Although Mr. Wickremesinghe has a majority in Parliament, the presidency
with executive powers is with the opposition. Although Mr. Wickremesinghe
has got a mandate from the people for peace, there are also a large number
of people in the country who had voted against him. While it is not possible
for the UNP'ers to forget easily what the PA had done against them, the
people who voted for the opposition parties, too, are unable to forget
all the enmities, and to support the new government. The people who are
divided ethnically also have contradictory expectations. The rising cost
of living has also affected the attitudes of the people.
Although it is not possible to get everybody to agree to a solution,
agreement of a large majority is essential. Keeping those who do not agree
to a solution in a state of non-action against it, is an essential condition
for a solution. The agreement of the LTTE and the agreement of the Tamil
people is not adequate for a solution. The agreement of a majority of the
Sinhala and Muslim people is essential for that purpose.
Although it would not be easy to have a common framework on which all
can agree, that is the objective that must be realised.
In this difficult path the UNF government does not have some of the
advantages that the PA government had. The PA had parliamentary power as
well as the power of the Executive Presidency. The UNF has only parliamentary
When the PA was in power the JVP acted in such a way that although it
criticised the PA it did not take decisive action against them. However,
under the UNF government the JVP functions as a party that acts in co-operation
with the PA.
What may happen is that the PA will not follow a policy of opposing
immediately, but would get the JVP to do that job, and will rise up powerfully
when an opportune moment arises.
The main contender in the race is Mr. Wickremesinghe. However, Chandrika
Kumaratunga has the steering wheel.
The future of the peace process depends on how this central problem
in the path towards peace, is solved. The UNF could have solved that problem
if it had done so soon after victory and when the people were enthusiastic.
In the path towards peace it is essential to gain the support of the opposition.
It is also possible that if the steering power of the peace process is
left in the hands of the lady leader for the purpose of getting support,
it could end in disaster.
The writer is the Editor of Ravaya
Focus on Rights
Media law reform this time around
By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
It cannot, justifiably, be the fault of the United
National Front government that all its major reform processes are dogged
by a deafening sense of déjà vu. This week's Cabinet decision
on media law reforms is another unfortunate case in point. Scarcely seven
years have passed, after all, since this country heard a new government
announcing an almost identical package of law reforms with similar exuberance.
We all know what happened subsequently, epitomised in those famous assurances
given time and time again to foreign media observers by then Media Minister
Mangala Samaraweera, that the Peoples Alliance administration was all right
on press freedom, " we are honestly sincere……….it is just taking so much
of time." This time around therefore, the key word is 'immediate'. And
the key question is; would the buck again be passed to committees and commissions
which would squabble and ponder interminably over which line should go
in and which line should go out in the proposed laws? The following months
should undoubtedly provide the answer to that question.
The 2002 media law reforms package comprises much the same content as
in 1994 with the focus primarily on enacting laws on Freedom of Information
and Contempt of Court, abolition of the offence of Criminal Defamation
and amendments to the Parliamentary (Powers and Privileges) (Amendment)
Act allowing parliamentary journalists to report on the proceedings of
the House without hindrance. The important difference however, is that
specific draft laws put forward by the media community are now waiting
to be approved, making further referral to committees quite redundant.
From the perspective of the media, the law reforms package will be accompanied
by a strong push towards effective self regulation, the implementation
of the Code of Professional Practice and the establishing of the Press
Complaints Commission (PCC). The PCC will replace an ineffective Press
Council that has hitherto been characterised mainly by the ludicrously
rabble rousing statements of its former Chairman Wijeyadasa Rajapakse,
rather than by the excellence of its orders or the respect which it has
generated within the media.
As far as the proposed media law reforms are concerned, the draft law
that is of equal importance to the public (as well as the media) is the
Freedom of Information Act. This draft Act has undergone various substantive
changes since it was initially mooted about a year back and incorporates
now, not only the thinking of the media community but also of civil society
organisations. It proposes firstly the appointing of Public Information
Officers by the Public Service Commission, for each public authority, who
will be vested with the task of dealing with requests for information by
members of the public. These officers have the power to request assistance
from any other public officers in obtaining the required information and
failure to provide that assistance has been made subject to punishment.
The Public Information Officer is mandated to provide the information requested
within twenty working days on the payment of reasonable fees. Only nominal
fees will be imposed with regard to requests for personal information.
The draft Act provides that requests for information may be rejected
in seven specific instances, including information that infringes personal
privacy, causes serious prejudice to defence or national security, crime
prevention or the conduct of international affairs , endangers the safety
of any person or prejudices public economic interests. Importantly, all
these exempted categories are subject to the condition that information
cannot be refused where the public interest in disclosure outweighs the
protected interest or the information requested is already in the public
An innovation in the draft Freedom of Information law is a three tiered
system of appeal from the refusals of Public Information officers to yield
information. The first appeal is to the public authority itself, failing
which the individual could appeal to a Freedom of Information Commission
established under the Act and thence to the Court of Appeal. It is significant
that appeals may relate to delay in disclosing information, arbitrary or
capricious denial of information as well as refusal under any of the substantive
exemptions. Where there has been a finding of arbitrary or capricious denial
of information, the officer shall be subjected to public censure and the
public authority concerned may be requested to take disciplinary action
against the officer. There is a specific provision meanwhile with regard
to whistleblowers, (those quaintly titled individuals who inform against
their establishments), so long as they act in good faith and in the reasonable
belief that the information was substantially true and disclosed evidence
of wrongdoing or a serious threat to health, safety or the environment.
The provisions of the Act apply to all local authorities, public corporations
and government departments and include, in addition, entities owned, controlled
or substantially financed by funds provided by the government and entities
carrying out a public or statutory function. Recognising that the success
of a freedom of information law will depend on the manner in which it is
used by the citizens in the country, the Act particularly compels public
authorities to maintain records and publicise their functioning under the
This latter provision is of primary importance in Sri Lanka where the
information issue has remained, somewhat unfortunately, identified with
the media. We could learn some instructive lessons in this sense from Indian
lobbying for a liberalised right to information, which is typically well
organised with campaigners bringing to the forefront, the admonition delivered
by the Indian Supreme Court as far back as 1975 that
"In a government of responsibility like ours where the agents of the
public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets.
The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything
that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled
to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearings.
The right to know which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech,
though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy
is being claimed for transactions which can at any rate, have no repercussions
on public security." (State of U.P.vs Raj Narain, 1975) Taking the right
to know to the public in Sri Lanka remains, therefore, of primary importance.