The gestation period of an Asian elephant is around 20-22 months. The Asian elephant we are acquainted with has taken much, much longer-some 12 years to finally get the Right to Information (RTI) law into an operational stage. One cannot blame the United National Party (UNP) which proudly flaunts its elephant symbol, for gestating for [...]


Right to know and right to ignore


The gestation period of an Asian elephant is around 20-22 months. The Asian elephant we are acquainted with has taken much, much longer-some 12 years to finally get the Right to Information (RTI) law into an operational stage.

One cannot blame the United National Party (UNP) which proudly flaunts its elephant symbol, for gestating for that long. Despite then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s best efforts from the time he promised a freedom of information Bill introduced in 2004, it was still-born, aborted and suffered from several infirmities particularly because the government of the day had little or no interest in a law that would only expose its own frailties, deformities and abuse of the legal process if the law is properly implemented.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe introduced a freedom of information bill in 2003.

So if it has taken over a decade to become law when those around us such as India and Bangladesh had already passed their own laws pertaining to the release of official information, it has been due to lack of political will though the people of the country had long urged a law that would give them access to information as a right which is what a sovereign people expects.
Had that been possible then the country would have known years ago about the rot and what not going on in the soiled ranks of government and bureaucracy both of which detested a law that opened them to public scrutiny and exposed to public view the prevarications and obfuscations that have long been the escape route of politicians and bureaucrats.

Anyway in the next few days the law that struggled to be born would become operative. Many people would utter a sigh of relief in the fervent belief that the issue has been finally dried and dusted and before long we would have all the information we need and ask for made readily available.

But as the old proverb goes there is many a slip between the cup and lip. Sri Lanka does have progressive laws as has been often pointed out. But having forward-looking laws mean little if they do not provide the necessary safeguards and benefits in practice.

So while many will applaud the coming into being of this vital legislation one might need to brace oneself against the same lack of enthusiasm of officialdom backed by political conniving to give as little as possible away. After all we are not entirely oblivious to the disappearance of vital files and other information from places and by officials who were supposed to hold them in sacred trust and make certain thatimportant information did not vanish through their air conditioned offices into thin air or into incinerators to be burnt to ashes.

Therefore one needs to hold one’s breath for some time before exulting that all is well and finally we have joined many other countries in the world that have enacted right to information or freedom of information laws.

Those who have covered for any length of time the proceedings of our parliament know that oral and written questions fired at some of our ministers of the past and present pertaining to their ministries or bodies under them often go unanswered.
Sometimes the minister is absent to answer. At other times time a month’s time is asked for and later extended to answer a simple, straightforward question. At other times one needs to have the longevity of a Methuselah to be able to pry a reply.
But that is parliament and none of its privileges – which seem to include procrastination – are untouched by the RTI law. The samering  around the rosie” will go on and no RTI is going to interfere with those privileges.

So one can still ask, as the opposition did in the days of the Rajapaksa presidency, what countries President Rajapaksa has visited in the last, say, two years; names of those who accompanied him; what was the total cost of the visit; how much was spent on the president and how much on those who accompanied him; what was the hotel bill, etc, etc, etc. That, however, would be a parliamentary question. But now there is an opportunity to pose a similar question via the RTI law as all state institutions and local government bodies are covered by the new law.

While earlier only parliamentarians could ask questions there is now the new route opened up where the people of this country could direct questions and ask for information. Whether they will get the information they seek is another matter and unless the Commission acts tough and prevents officials from getting away with vague or incomplete replies this is likely to happen on occasion.

In such instances the Commission should be able to take punitive action against officials who fail to comply by providing the answers sought. As questions were fired about the foreign visits made by then President Rajapaksa and his massive entourages that sometimes amounted to planeloads of non-entities to places strange to them similar questions could now be asked about current President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and most of all, Foreign Minister Samaraweera.

So on the eve of Independence Day, people who have at least now got the independence to ask questions and expect cogent replies might well ask how many days in 2016 the Foreign Minister was in Sri Lanka, how many foreign visits did he make last year, what were the countries he visited, what was the expenditure incurred on each visit, how many days did he spend on each visit, what was his official programme with dates, who did he meet during these visits, what are the tangible benefits that have accrued from these visits.

While answers could be sought from the Foreign Ministry about the world travel engaged in by its minister, the benefits to the country of these visits and even if his official residence in Colombo is available for short lets, there is a question that relates to our diplomatic missions abroad.

Since they represent the government abroad and are an extension of the foreign ministry they too should be subject to RTI law. If urgent information is sought from any of our missions, information that does not compromise state secrets and vital bilateral issues, it has been customary for our missions to provide that information to journalists and even persons of Sri Lankan origin.

The intention of the government and parliament is quite clear in the preamble to the law. The people need information if they are to participate in full in public life. That participation applies not only to those present in Sri Lanka but those living abroad and having a stake in Sri Lanka either as dual citizens or as those with family or material interests in that country.

The diplomatic mission as the overseas arm of the state is therefore duty bound to fulfil the intention of the government and parliament in granting access to information, especially if such information is important to the public to know that missions maintained at public expense are living up to the intentions of the state and to public expectations.

The problem is that in some important capitals missions seem to forget that they represent the state and that sovereignty lies with the people. Those who run some of these missions have deluded themselves into thinking like Loius XlV of France “L’Etat, c’est moi.”

The incident I am about to relate happened here in London a couple of months or so before RTI was due to become operative. Yet it illustrates the mindset of those who are unclear of their role and seem to surround themselves with impenetrable walls of that signal ‘incommunicado’.

On October 23rd which was a Sunday I sent an email to the High Commissioner and her deputy saying I had received a flyer announcing the launch of a book by the British Tamil Forum (GTF) under the auspices of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPG-T) the next day at Portcullis House.

My intention was to draw the attention of the High Commission in case they had not previously heard of it. The title of the book was “Proliferation of Buddhist structures in Tamil Homeland-sowing the seeds of disharmony.”

The book directly criticizes Buddhism as a religion and argues that “Buddhism is the root cause of the massive bloodshed and genocide in Sri Lanka”. Having attached the flyer I asked the High Commissioner whether the mission intends to take any action with regard to this obvious insult to Buddhism and the misrepresentation. Since on several previous occasions some years ago the London mission had protested to various authorities in the UK whenever false or distorted information was circulated or protests against our cricketers were announced by Tamil groups, going as high as the chief of the Metropolitan Police/Scotland Yard, one expected the mission to act against such calumny.

Similar action was expected because this was not only an insult to the foremost religion in Sri Lanka but an untruth that was being propagated and needed to be nipped early so that British MPs would be aware of any action by the high commission.

Since I had not heard from the mission I sent another email to the High Commissioner and other officials including one addressed to the “spokesman” of which there seems to be none, asking for a comment from the mission and asking several questions. Among them were (a) whether the mission had contacted the BTF and APPG-T to protest or whether it would issue a statement, (b) whether any representation had been made to the British Foreign Office, (c) If not whether the mission intends to take any action to correct this false impression (d) whether anybody from the mission was able to attend the meeting.

As a London-based Sri Lankan correspondent with official credentials as a journalist I felt it imperative to do so because I had received several telephone calls from very agitated Sri Lankan Buddhists and even some Tamil friends asking whether I am aware of the meeting and of any action being taken by the mission. In the meantime I had even got a short comment from the London Buddhist Vihara after I had spoken to the Chief Monk about the need to have the observations of the premier Buddhist institution in the UK.

While the London Vihara responded the next day, three months after I wrote to our London High Commission I haven’t had the courtesy of a reply. When I managed to contact the Deputy High Commissioner by phone still hoping to get an official comment he said he was not authorised to comment. If the High Commissioner did not want to say a word there is somebody called a Political Officer in the mission though I am not sure how informed he is of political affairs both in a bilateral and international sense. A couple of months ago there was an email in circulation – which came to me from two sources – that was highly critical of High Commissioner Amari Wijewardene and saying more exposures would be made. Whether these allegations are true or not is not my concern here.

It seems to me that if the High Commission which is perhaps the first and largest of Sri Lankan missions, begins to isolate itself and suffer from a siege mentality and refuses to deal with the media sooner or later the British media which is no respecter of most persons, will smell something is rotten in the State of Denmark, as the saying goes, and will want to ask questions. At that time creeping under the bed will not do.

It might be claimed that the mission has sent a report to the ministry. Something stored away in a ministry file and soon forgotten is not the answer. It is the people’s right to know and they cannot be ignored.

The problem needs to be sorted out for we will have questions to ask as the days go by. A deafening silence cannot be the answer. It is too late for that kind of evasive action. People will ply our missions with queries. Then something will hit the fan.

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