27th January 2002

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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 power. 

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 domain.

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 Act.

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.

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