In an interview to a local newspaper, the new secretary to the Media Ministry, has said that the “Right to Information Act” or Freedom of Information Act – call it what you will — is expected to be tabled in parliament on February 20. It is appropriate that this should return to parliament as a [...]


Clearing the way for public’s right to know


In an interview to a local newspaper, the new secretary to the Media Ministry, has said that the “Right to Information Act” or Freedom of Information Act – call it what you will — is expected to be tabled in parliament on February 20.

It is appropriate that this should return to parliament as a piece of government legislation when Ranil Wickremesinghe is prime minister for he has for years strongly advocated a freedom of information law.

My mind goes back to February 2003 when I came to Colombo to help with the preparations for the Commonwealth Press Union’s major conference in Sri Lanka attended by senior editors and journalists from across the Commonwealth.

At that time Wickremesinghe was prime minister. As the son of Esmond Wickremesinghe, one time managing director of Lake House, widely recognised internationally for his contributions to the development of the newspaper industry and to press freedom, it seemed natural that Wickremesinghe should not only take a keen interest in the media but also in promoting a new media culture at the time when government controls were threatening to throttle it.

I still remember some of the points he made in his address as I was acting as CPU Press Officer for that conference and had taken down notes for use later.

He quite correctly argued that media freedom must be accompanied by media responsibility. Unfortunately today there are those who think that freedom of the press is the freedom of the wild ass, as a celebrated Supreme Court Judge, Justice T.S. Fernando said in admonishing a Lake House journalist of the day.

But the important point that Wickremesinghe made in this context and which even today’s government in the UK, once revered as the beacon of press freedom has tended to ignore, is that responsibility cannot be coerced by state controls. It must be created and nurtured by the media itself, or what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on that occasion called “self grown”.

At the same time Wickremesinghe made two other points. He promised to introduce legislation to repeal the law under which a previous administration had established the government-appointed Press Council which, by and large, was a worthless body.

That body, as far as I know, still exists in the statute books though the council whether the council itself functions or has gone into self-exile I would not know

If the Press Council could also be abolished at the same time it will let in some fresh air. As long as it is in the statute books it could be easily revived by politicians and officials who have not abandoned the idea of control freakery.

The more crucial matter he raised and would resonate more widely than just within the media industry was his promise to make the government more open to the public through the Freedom of Information law.

As he told me at the time, this would be one of the most important pieces of “reforming legislation” that the government of the day intended to pass.

Unfortunately before that could be done Wickremesinghe was out of office. Now it has come full circle and he is back in his prime ministerial seat and the draft bill is on the drawing boards.

But this should not take long as there are several pieces of existing legislation even from the neighbourhood that could be useful sources of inspiration.

I remember that somewhere in the 1990s when I was working in Hong Kong, my university colleague and hall-mate Dr Nihal Jayawickrama, then a professor of law at the Hong Kong University Christine Loh.

When that effort gained currency the then British administration that governed Hong Kong quickly produced an Act of its own. It incorporated many of the provisions that Dr Jayawickrama had written into the draft but dropped several others. The reason was quite obvious. The colonial administration did not want the public and the media delving into the past actions of the successive British administrations. Nor did it want embarrassing questions asked about the prevailing administration and some of the dubious activities which I was writing about in my regular columns to the newspaper I worked with.

Those working on the draft law here must surely know that there are several freedom of information laws from Australia to the UK, Scandinavia and North America which set out clearly the scope of the laws and what the public and media can expect from such refreshing legislation.
Some laws require the government to release official documents to public scrutiny after 30 years. Then there is the opportunity for the media to ask the various government institutions for information relating to specific issues.

The problem is that governments and officials prefer to work behind a veil of secrecy so that their decisions and the reasons for such decisions will remain secret and sometimes hidden behind spurious claims of national security and the need to preserve the confidentiality of matters concerning foreign relations.

It is correct that there are indeed occasions and circumstances under which such secrecy and confidentiality must be maintained. Even the laws relating to freedom of information permit governments to deny access to such information.

The truth is that quite often national security and foreign relations concerns provide an excuse for governments and officials to deny access to information. Any law must be able to tear apart such walls of official secrecy while preserving the right of governments to deny access to such information when it genuinely relates to matters of national security.

While the new proposed legislation the provisions of which we have not yet seen, is on the whole commendable there is another aspect to creating a new media culture. That is to free the media of the fear and coercion they have functioned under in recent times on the one hand and crass partiality of the state-run media on the other.

Lake House, once a respected media institution except among the political Left and the centre-left which found it a convenient target, has never reached such a nadir of journalistic incompetence. crudity and pro-government slavishness as it has been in recent years.

The politicisation of the institution to the point that each journalist seems to believe that his or her survival depends on clinging on to some political patron has degraded this institution to the point that slavish propaganda and the extolling of government personalities are seen as the necessary requirements of the state media.

Until the new media culture that is talked about includes rescuing the state-run media from being a Goebbelsian mouthpiece manned by persons of a crude and vulgar disposition, real media freedom exercised by competent journalists will remain a mirage.

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