It is some irony that information on the status of the Right to the Access of Information (RTI) Bill that was passed unanimously by Parliament a fortnight ago is itself so hard to access. What has now transpired (having to ferret out the information the old fashioned way) is that after the passage of the [...]


RTI: Let it be implemented in spirit


It is some irony that information on the status of the Right to the Access of Information (RTI) Bill that was passed unanimously by Parliament a fortnight ago is itself so hard to access. What has now transpired (having to ferret out the information the old fashioned way) is that after the passage of the Bill and the Speaker ready with his pen to give his assent to make the Bill into law, some niggle on the wording cropped up and his hand was stayed.

The Bill with the amendments moved on the floor of the House at voting time had to go back to the Legal Draftsman for ‘cleaning up’ and no one is now sure what the end product will look like. The Speaker meanwhile had to be rushed to Singapore for medical attention — which was a drama of its own with him being involuntarily offloaded by an airline. So as of today, the RTI is still not law.

For 12 long years since 2004 when a then Freedom of Information Bill was presented to Parliament, successive Governments under two Presidents kept this law, which gives every citizen of Sri Lanka the right to access certain official information hitherto kept away from their eyes, in cold storage. If that effort had been successful back in 2004, Sri Lanka would not only have ranked as the first in South Asia to have such a then modern law, but half the corruption that is being highlighted now in the media and in court may, arguably have come to light long before, or in fact, been prevented.

The National Unity Government must be commended even belatedly, and despite some feet-dragging post January 2015 when it promised this law in 100 days, for pushing the Bill through Parliament. In particular, the Prime Minister’s personal interest in ensuring the enactment from the time that he headed the drafting committee himself in 2004 is noteworthy, even if his interest waned in recent years. The fact that the Bill was passed unanimously by a generally quarrelsome House is a rare feat. More so, as its positive features, such as the right of the public to demand the disclosure of information from state agencies “in the public interest” even in regard to all the otherwise exempted information (common to such laws across the democratic world) were left untouched in the passing.

It is unfortunate, however, that, despite the best efforts of the drafting committee finalising the Bill, the RTI Commission established under the law was not vested with more efficacious power in regard to directly ensuring the implementation of its orders — and to ensure the release of public documents in the public interest. Across the Palk Strait, the Indian RTI Commission is in a better position. Indeed, the RTI experience in India has transformed the functioning of the government largely due to the courage of RTI advocates, some of whom have even died in the process at the hands of those who want to conceal information for their own personal gains at the expense of the nation.

It is also necessary that the RTI provision in the 19th Amendment that was rushed through Parliament last year in a crazed frenzy unprecedented in the passing of laws in this country, be reviewed at the earliest opportunity. Its generalised and vague restrictions must be tightened. Otherwise, there exists the possibility for the constitutional restrictions to prevail overriding the RTI law, confusing its interpretation and undermining its thrust.

That said, the worth of a law, lies not in the letter but in the spirit of its implementation. We have a sad tradition of good laws lying unused in our statute books. The RTI law must not be allowed to fall into that uninspiring lot. Further, laws contemplated to be passed in the future by Parliament must not be put out of reach of the RTI. This will violate the citizen’s trust and the public interest. We may hasten to add moreover that this law is not for the sole benefit of the Media as is sometimes wrongfully perceived.
This basic misapprehension on the part of some must be erased from the public psyche.

In this region, and elsewhere, RTI has been most frequently used by ordinary villagers in demanding accountability regarding the expenditure of public funds as well as by public spirited citizens in exposing corruption scandals, especially in countries where there is a culture of secrecy rather than transparency. As Sri Lanka enters the information age, even as a late entrant due to the follies of its politicians, this fact may be kept in mind.

Once the Speaker returns, we hope he will make haste to sign this Bill into Law, for he was one who took a personal interest in promoting this very Bill that was presented to Parliament in 2004 and on a later date as a Private Member’s Bill when the then Government made it clear it had no interest in its passage for reasons that are obvious given the corruption scandals during its tenure that are getting highlighted on a weekly basis now.

What will follow is a gigantic task for the Media Ministry tasked with its implementation and the Government in appointing the right people, not its stooges, to the all-important RTI Commission so that this law will be spiritedly employed for the benefit of all Sri Lankan citizens.

Private tuition: Don’t throw the book at students
The Commissioner General of Examinations should have his designation changed to Controller of Examinations for re-gazetting the ban on seminars, classes and the release of model papers on the eve of the GCE Advanced Level exam.Such a ban was introduced by the previous Government to stop question papers leaking. It was ‘discovered’ that some private tutories showing good results were in truck with those who had access to question papers.

The then Opposition denounced this ban saying, and quite rightly so, that rather than stopping the leaks they were punishing the students. In power, these same folks are doing the same thing they once criticized by extending the original Gazette of 21.06.2103 under the Public Examinations Act.

The Police have been called in to catch offenders and jail them if necessary. The Exams chief says this is to provide students “an opportunity to enjoy free individual study time before an examination” (see Education Times today) and “stress”, which is a subjective matter anyway, has been cited as a reason for this “cooling period”. Not all students are alike, and some are known to wait for the final, last minute spurt. What about their deprivation and stress?

A clinical psychologist points out that no research has been done on this issue and private tuition classes and group study classes are here to stay. This ban is to be extended to O’L and Grade 5 exams as well, we are told. The bane of this country’s education system has been this ‘ad-hocism’, and the country’s administrators trying to tell students what to study. Now it is telling them how and when to study; something unheard of even in the most regimented countries of the world.

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