It was bound to happen before long. Parliament high-ups conduct themselves as though they are above and beyond the law. Such laws might apply to other institutions, even to ministries and state institutions but not to parliament. Or so they have been thinking as previous experience has revealed. That is the arrogant attitude of the [...]


Court of Appeal bashes parliament officials for refusing information


It was bound to happen before long. Parliament high-ups conduct themselves as though they are above and beyond the law. Such laws might apply to other institutions, even to ministries and state institutions but not to parliament. Or so they have been thinking as previous experience has revealed.

That is the arrogant attitude of the top rankers in the parliament structure. They think they have the right and the privilege to brush aside condescendingly requests for basic information that the people have a right to know under the law.

Perhaps they labour under the delusion that the Privileges Act that applies to members of parliament applies to them as well.

Last week, the Court of Appeal put Parliament officials in their place in an important verdict. It related to Parliament’s refusal to name how many MPs had declared their assets and liabilities as required by law and the names of those who had failed to do so.

It concerned a Right to Information request under the RTI law that was passed by Parliament in 2016. The request for information was submitted to the parliament authorities by a journalist interested in finding out whether there were MPs who had not abided by the law — the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act — which, like the RTI law, came some 40 years later, was passed by the very legislature whose law some law-making MPs appeared to be deliberately, it would seem, flouting.

This was a legitimate request by a journalist who rightly believed that it is a matter of public interest. After all, MPs are said to be representatives of the people, elected by the public at national elections unless they creep into Parliament under that rather dubious category called the national list.

Whether MPs really represent the people who elect them or find being a legislator a useful vocation to fatten themselves during their minimum five-year period and earn a pension to boot, is another matter, which many would find not too difficult to answer.

What is of immediate concern is the churlish conduct of the parliament authorities — first the Information Officer and then the Designated Officer registered under the RTI law who rejected out of hand the request for the information sought, arguing that it was a matter outside their remit.

When the refusal was referred by the journalist concerned to the RTI Commission, it quite correctly ordered the parliament authorities to release the information.

Instead of doing so it, they challenged the determination of the RTI Commission before the Court of Appeal.

This journalist has had to wait almost five years for a verdict but when it did come it proved to be an important judgement that should serve as a good lesson to officials not just in Parliament but the plethora of state institutions and to MPs and other politicians that they are not above the law even though they conduct themselves as though they do.

It should also teach officials not to raise frivolous and sometimes silly arguments — as parliament officials did about two years back when they refused to divulge the educational qualifications of the 224 MPs (the 225th sitting somewhat elevated with some antiquated head gear being excluded).

The parliament authorities raised 15 grounds in appeal, all of which (some considered collectively) were dismissed by the two-judge bench upholding the original determination of the RTI Commission. It clearly showed that the Commission had acted with an understanding of the law and its own mandate and the rights of the public in seeking information from state/public institutions that fall within the ambit of the RTI law.

Increasingly public officials and institutions have kept information bottled up and buried largely because of fear that corruption and malfeasance within those institutions or by politicians and officials will reach the public one way or another.

If all the talk of successive governments of fighting corruption and violations of the laws are to be curbed, if not stopped, then the public’s right to know must be strengthened and preserved, not stultified by bureaucratic barriers as parliament authorities have tried to do.

This issue on which the Appeal Court ruled last week is far more serious than the parliament authorities’ earlier refusal to disclose the educational qualifications of MPs, perhaps because some did not have or for some other reasons.

Had it not been for the persistence of the RTI Commission which has won respect abroad, the parliament authorities would have got away by brushing aside issues of genuine public concern.

It took several years from the time such a right-to-information law was first proposed by journalist organisations, lawyers and public interest groups, for it to finally emerge. Those who initiated this move and worked hard to see its fruition such as the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka and media organisations must also thank Ranil Wickremesinghe who at the turn of the century supported an RTI law.

In 2003 when the Commonwealth Press Union(CPU) held its sessions in Colombo which I attended officially representing the CPU, Wickremesinghe then prime minister, did announce his support for such a law and he told me he would like to push it through as soon as it was drafted for which an expert from the UK did play a role.

Some might recall the interest that MPs such as Karu Jayasuriya, later the Speaker of Parliament, took to invigorate interest in an RTI law.

Even though it took time the fact that it reached the statute book and the Commission has proved its value in upholding the public interest by pressing for transparency and accountability has won plaudits from professional organisations, media institutions and public interest groups locally and abroad as a recent report in the Bangladesh Daily Star observed.

Since the RTI Commission started to function and the more the public began to understand its role and importance, the more they turned to it to knock down bureaucratic bulwarks erected by officialdom to safeguard their political masters and themselves against violations of the law and multiple acts of turpitude.

Hence the vigorous attempts to block the release of information could lead to their exposure and public condemnation, if nothing else.

Besides the issue of naming names with regard to declaring assets and liabilities of MPS, there is a much more serious matter. Whatever happens to these declarations? Do they serve any legitimate purpose other than to manufacturers of paper and giving an opportunity to some MPs to fiddle with the declarations to hide assets they have at home and or abroad, to cover up ill-gotten gains and all sorts of other jugglery?

The truth is these declarations made yearly lie in multiple dusty offices piled up year by year gathering dust, unread and of little interest to anyone but the rats — the four-legged ones, not those who have done the fiddling and will get away with it.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

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