Columns - FOCUS On Rights

An unenviable dilemma of extreme non-governance

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

In a perfect world, it would be delightful to form part of a collective onslaught on this government, indisputably the most illiberal and quite shamelessly undemocratic political administration that we have been unfortunate enough to witness in recent decades. This is not a statement that is made lightly in the sense of the deliberately pejorative terms employed.

Adding insult to injury

This week’s rejection of a Right to Information (RTI) Bill presented by United National Party parliamentarian Karu Jayasuriya is the most recent case in point. We are now, liable to be listed among the ranks of popularly shunned countries in the world noted not for passing a right to information law by unanimous legislative vote but rather, for rejecting an RTI bill for no perceptible reason.

And to add insult to the proverbial injury, we are told brazenly that the defeat of this bill by government members on the dictates of the party whip is due to the fact that a better RTI bill would be presented before the House by the government itself in due course.

This explanation may give rise to ironic chuckles if the intention underlying the same was not quite so transparently diabolical. Where is the government’s draft which is apparently being furiously discussed at this very moment, according to its imaginative spokespersons?

Should not the public be allowed to see it and assess it on its merits? Or is this draft just a convenient chimera, to mask this government’s palpable aversion to an information law for reasons that are quite obvious and have nothing to do with drafting ‘better’ bills or for other reasons such as national security?

National security not a valid reason

The current administration has been adept in trotting out the excuse that national security is the reason for each and every illiberal act that it engages in. But what pray, does national security have to do with enacting a well reasoned and rationally balanced right to information law? In all modern information laws, (including the Sri Lankan drafts), there is a very specific exemption in regard to disclosure of information that would threaten national security. So this is one ready excuse that this government cannot rely on, even though it may try very hard to do so.

The determining of what could be shut out on the basis of national security, at least where the 2003 draft approved by the then Cabinet is concerned, rests with an official body, namely the Right to Information Commission or, as a last resort, the courts. Allegations of partiality or even the slightest risk regarding the release of problematic information are therefore shut out. This provision was inserted as a matter of deliberate policy at that time, to thwart opposition to the bill. Apparently, this strategy has not been successful.

Corruption and abuse of public resources

Yet the other and far more logical explanation for this administration’s palpable aversion to an RTI law rests with the considerable dangers that this may pose to corruption, whether it is to do with a local politician or at the highest levels of political power. This is a reality which all thinking individuals in this country need to accept at a time when public sector corruption has reached unprecedented heights and where, as this column has remarked previously, to cite one example, certain roads seem to be paved with gold along the lines of Dick Whittington’s 13th century fabled yearnings of the streets of London.

To refuse to accept the above conclusion leaves us open to being rudely awakened to realising that our public resources and public moneys have been snatched away from us, not slowly or invidiously but grandly and in the most nefarious manner of things. At that time perhaps, when loudly trumpeted charges of war crimes against the current crop of politicians have lost their resonance, we may realize how misplaced our blind allegiances have been.

War crimes lifeline to the government

This brings us back to the opening lines of this week’s column. Where President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defiant proclamations that he is willing to go even to the electric chair for the sake of the country and the armed forces, assails our unwilling ears from each and every corner of this resplendent isle, it is difficult perhaps for many among us to think of far more mundane issues such as the Right to Information or for that matter, the Rule of Law.

In that sense, the war crimes outcry has been a lifeline for this government for it has been able to bring each and every challenge to its most autocratic rule, under the general rubric of helping outside forces to destroy the country. To bring an element of farce into the picture, university lecturers agitating for higher pay scales were also told they were helping agendas of outside forces. The only significant challenge to this propaganda in recent times has been the revolt by the Katunayake Free Trade Zone workers who, on seeing their pitifully small and hard earned moneys being wrested away from them, decided to take to the streets against batons and bullets.

And regardless of whatever may be said, it is a tribute to that struggle wrought with blood, that the contentious pensions bill was withdrawn. Perhaps a small victory but a victory nonetheless, and rendered all the more sweet as it was wrested from a government that jealously and very effectively strikes out against any perceived or actual affronts to its authority.

Rendering us to shame in the sub-continent

But in a more profound sense, this week’s defeat of the RTI Bill in Parliament renders us to shame, even in the sub-continent. Other countries in this region have now accepted RTI laws as a matter of course. India, of course, leads this debate. Tellingly for us, discussions on the fundamental value of a public right to information in that country are not merely centred on policy and advocacy campaigns by non-governmental organizations. The demand for RTI came from the villages and from ordinary men and women who saw their public moneys disappearing into the pockets of well heeled politicians. I have spent hours in the sweltering Rajasthan sun, observing with admiration, the courage with which a bricklayer and a housewife (among others) harangued and challenged a shame faced local administrator as to the whereabouts of budget allocations meant to build a community centre in the village but which had inexplicably disappeared.

Even with all of India’s massive corruption scandals, one cannot doubt the self propelling vigour of this movement which has resulted in deaths of some RTI advocates and the harassment of many others. Still, the movement goes on, compelling similar convulsions in neighbouring South Asian countries, in all but Sri Lanka, that is.

The need for self critical questioning

Is it that we lack the democratic space in which specific and glaring instances of high level corruption, whether regarding enhanced defence expenditure, (even when the war has ended), or so-called post war development projects, can be raised not merely in Parliament or in the spaces of a newspaper column but in a wider and more public sense? In making such demands, can we ‘survive’, in the literal or metaphorical sense of the term in present-day Sri Lanka?

If we accept that even this minimum of democratic space is not permitted in this country, then we must also accept that we are putting ourselves even lower than, for example, Pakistan, which notwithstanding the dynamics of fundamentalist politics and continued super power infringement of its sovereignty, still sees strenuous efforts on the part of its public, civil society and media, towards implementing a right to information regime. These efforts are by far more dynamic than what we see in Sri Lanka. So is it that we just do not have the interest apart from hosting a few conferences or desultorily publishing some newspaper ‘exposes’ or articles?

These are valid questions that we should ask ourselves individually and collectively, in response to the unenviable dilemmas of extreme non-governance that we find ourselves in today.

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