At times it seems there are no boundaries to the limitation of understanding by top Government officials. Over the weekend Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella was quoted as defending Government blocks to right of information legislation on the grounds that Sri Lanka, in his myopic view, enjoys a high level of media freedom and therefore has no need for it.
Rambukwella, in addition to displaying his little knowledge about the true challenges faced by local media, has also in this instance demonstrated appalling ignorance about the point of right to information and its necessity in modern Sri Lanka.
RTI, as it is commonly referred to, is a mechanism that enables transparency at multiple levels, particularly in government policy and finance. It allows the public to gain seamless access to sensitive information so that they can, not just benefit from policies, but also regulate them. Such legislation also assists in curbing wasteful spending, cronyism and politicisation of key institutions.
In some countries RIT has strengthened public officials to act as whistleblowers and given impetus for courts to redirect or shutdown self-serving, corrupt, unregulated government projects. In short it helps to make sure resources are used in the best possible way for the benefit of the entire population. Understandably the Government does not want that.
In this information age, most Sri Lankans are without this valuable currency. Many people see but do not know the exact extent to which Government finances are compromised or guided during election campaigns. They do not know what projects, particularly infrastructure, are decided within closed doors, nor how funding decisions by top officials will impact the country’s economic future. Increasingly, from investment to taxes to agriculture, policies are becoming secret. Media also have limited access to information as wary Government officials close files on important details. Even the information that is released rarely gets organised in a comprehensive and independent manner that is readily accessible to the public. As Cabinet Spokesman, Rambukwella should be aware of this.
Most governments are cagey of RTI. For example, it took decades for the Indian Government to pass its RTI Act in Parliament. It was finally managed in 2005 and extended last year after a long road of negotiations and attempts by Members of Parliament to dilute its powers.
The RTI Act enabled the implementation of freedom of information legislation in India on a national level to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen may request information from a public authority that belongs to the Government or is part of the State. The institution is required to reply expeditiously or within 30 days. The Act also requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally. This gives an idea of why a RTI Act is of paramount importance in a country like Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has failed to climb up the Ease of Doing Business rankings in successive years, plummeting eight places according to the latest report, largely because it continues to have inconsistent and opaque policies. There are genuine and important reasons why RTI is a cornerstone of democracy. Countries empowered with it enjoy higher levels of equitable and sustainable growth.