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From what is gleaned from the media/websites, could we not conclude that the proposed RTI is farcical? | (Picture-AFP)

Draft ‘Right to Information’ – Farcical? Exclusion of Private Sector, NGOs & Crucial Restrictions – Untenable

The very fact the Draft ‘Right to Information’ is not ‘officially’ available in the public domain questions its bona fides.

To postulate that it was formulated in some measure of secrecy may not be far from the truth. It would appear that the only major ‘outside’ input solicited by its framers was from large Colombo based NGOs – most of them close to the current Wickremesinghe led political dispensation.

Our legislators apparently have a predilection to muck up even laudable objectives such as RTI mainly due to their ‘self-serving’ interests leading to politicization. This cuts across party lines. For example, is it not plausible that the exemption of the Private Sector from RTI could be rooted in political party funding?

To place matters in perspective, it’s a fair assumption that any initiative for a RTI in any form would have been frowned upon by the previous Rajapaksa administration. However, this does not give the license to the current administration which was elected to office to fulfill the aspirations of the people for a democratic, corruption free and transparent administration to ride roughshod on its version of RTI.

THE PUBLIC INTEREST IS THE SINE QUA NON FOR ANY RTI.

Politicization
From what is gleaned from the media/websites, could we not conclude that the proposed RTI is farcical? Our legislators apparently have a predilection to muck up even laudable objectives such as RTI mainly due to their ‘self-serving’ interests leading to politicization. This cuts across party lines. For example, is it not plausible that the exemption of the Private Sector from RTI could be rooted in political party funding?

Another example is making a mess of the highly desirable ‘Financial Crimes Investigations Division’ by its crass politicization. As Mr. Kusal Perera inter alia notes in his piece in the Colombo Telegraph:

“Wickremesinghe government is clearly politicking with investigations. The gazette notification in establishing the FCID contradicts the very concept of independent commissions promised during the past 02 years.”

Another glaring example is the much publicized ‘Weliamuna Report’ on Sri Lankan Airlines. Weliamuna is closely identified with the top UNP leadership led by Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is Chairman of Transparency International Sri Lanka!

It is becoming clearer by the day that those concerned in top management rapped for alleged corruption and abuse of power will go scot-free. This is because it is highly unlikely (almost impossible) that the long standing auditors – Ernst & Young and then high profile directors will ever be held accountable for any dereliction of duty. From all indications, Weliamuna and his team have let them off the hook! It now transpires that Mr. Chandra Jayaratne – key member of the ‘Friday Forum’ and a former Director of TISL was part of this team. He has not denied this.

Application of RTI
It is discernible that RTI will only apply to “Public Authorities” at all levels established by the State – Central, Provincial, Local and Statutory bodies. This will presumably cover regulatory bodies such as the SEC and ICASL. It will ostensibly also apply to ‘companies’ in which the government holds ‘majority’ shares. A serious flaw is that it leaves out the Private sector and NGOs.

Is there not a case to also include professional firms such as those engaged in audit and legal services which impinge on ‘Public Interest’?

There is no rational basis to leave out the corporate and NGO sectors since they regularly engage with the ‘public’ for their ‘sustenance’.

The Private Sector (‘quoted’ & ‘unquoted’) is increasingly involved in providing services vital to the community at a profit which includes – education, health, transport,
communication, power & energy, infrastructure and plantations on state owned lands.
It is wholly untenable to maintain that NGOs are only accountable to their donors. Their accountability should ultimately and crucially be to the people of this country since all their efforts are purportedly to alleviate the ‘miseries’ of its peoples!

Did not particularly the larger NGOs in the country make a ‘killing’ in the aftermath of the 2004 ‘boxing day’ Tsunami that devastated coastal areas?

I doubt any large NGO in this country having provided on their otherwise elaborate websites:

“project based donor information (inclusive of amount and source) together with concomitant expenditure appropriately broken down to also reflect administrative and personnel costs and payments to individuals”!

It is still not too late for these ‘social entrepreneurs’ to do so for the millions of US Dollars received from concerned donors worldwide for Tsunami rehabilitation.

More contemporary projects which need accountability include the whopping RS.250 Million foreign funded ‘Sri Lanka Anti – Corruption Program’ of which the main local partners were inter-connected NGOs –Transparency International Sri Lanka, Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Free Media Movement.

Even my mere request for the NAMES OF DIRECTORS in the entities coming under the ‘Sri Lanka Press Institute’ controlled by influential sections of the private media incredibly elicited the response:

“Could you please let me know for what purpose you require this information?”!
Ref. E-mail of PCCSL (CEO) dated 1 October 2009

Arbitrary Restrictions
The restrictions preventing disclosure – some of them ridiculous, for all practical purposes nullify the raison d’être for RTI.

These include – safeguarding (i) “morals” (ii) “reputation” (iii) “information” received in “confidence”

Can anything be more absurd?
Who is to define “morals” and how does it override ‘public interest’? Why should the “reputation” of a person who is proven to have done something inimical to the ‘public interest’ be protected? What is the point in receiving “information” in “confidence” if it cannot be used in the ‘public interest’?

Grounds for “Parliamentary Privilege” and “contempt of court” to prevent disclosure need to be examined due to their potential to even circumscribe RTI’s sole application to “Public Authorities”.

Conclusion
I REST MY CASE THAT THERE ARE NO RATIONAL GROUNDS TO EXCLUDE THE PRIVATE SECTOR AND NGOs FROM THE RTI.

THE UNWARRANTED RESTRICTIONS WHICH NULLIFY THE EFFICACY OF THE RTI SHOULD BE WITHDRAWN FORTHWITH.
(Colombo Telegraph)