‘Transparency is the cardinal principle’
Justice and Law Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda says that an early implementation of Right to Information Act will be crucial to Sri Lanka’s development in the aftermath of the government’s triumph over the LTTE.
Justice, a magazine published by the Justice and Law Reforms Ministry, carried the following interview with Minister Moragoda.
Q: Sri Lanka has been one of the foremost countries in Asia to have introduced very progressive legal reforms. Despite this, there has been some sort of reluctance since 2003 to implement the Right to Information Act. What do you think is the reason for this? Is there a political motive behind this?
A: The Right to Information Act, as expounded in India, should necessarily be a ‘living’ piece of legislation. For it to serve this purpose, transparency I believe is the cardinal principle. Sadly, we are a nation which is over-politicized; the entire social fabric of our country is politicized and as a result even progressive ventures including timely legislation such as the Right to Information Act is obscured by politics. Thus, divorcing progressive schemes from politics is essential if they are to serve the public at large. The citizens’ right to information is borne out of transparency. Therefore ensuring that transparency through streamlined mechanisms in every sphere of governance is paramount.
Q: Do you think there is a political will to implement this progressive piece of legislation?
A: I think political will has to be created. Within the government, several other politicians including myself have pledged their support to implement this law and even Mahinda Chinthanaya identifies the need for this kind of transparency-oriented legislation. We are certainly moving in this direction but there should certainly be an ongoing civil society coalition to exhaust the provisions of this law.
Q: How exactly do you intend to utilize public involvement in this regard? Can you elaborate?
A: The civil society is diverse, comprising various social strata and it is the right of each and every member of this diverse social framework to be accessible to information. There is a perception in our society that legislation of this nature is the canvas of the urban populace or intellectuals. It’s a misconception indeed because right to information can only be effectively exhausted if a collective mechanism exists. Further, this right can be exercised in accordance with individual interests and grievances irrespective of the social segment to which an individual belongs. For example, an aggrieved parent whose child is rejected by a particular school has all the right to inquire on what basis the child was rejected, a farmer can petition his grievance on a land matter in the same capacity and a person who is denied of a government tender too can exhaust the provisions of this legislation. It cannot discriminate against an individual. Thus creating space for a civil society mechanism to effectively implement this law is vital. For instance, in India, the engagement of civil society in every sphere which affects the social equilibrium is so vast, a trend we can be inspired by. Media too is a key component which can facilitate this public-government coalition, to sustain the effective exploitation of the right to information. The reality is that many systems in our country amount to frustration – the education system is one such classic example. Therefore, to assist the ‘victims’ of such frustrating systems to activate this law, to access information, public forums should be set up at every level of the country, in which process, the media can pay a pivotal role.
Q: You, as the leader of the Sri Lanka National Congress, have proposed that the right to information is imperative for good governance. Can you elaborate?
A: Transparency being the foundation on which this law is fashioned upon, it becomes a ‘watch light’ on the elected representatives who are accountable to people in the country. The fact that they are watched and monitored by citizens, compels the representatives to be transparent and accountable. The transparency should be extended to all government officials and departments. The Government has an overwhelming role to play in our society. The fact that political patronage can be exploited to admit a child to a national school is not a matter to take pride in but clearly it is the case in our country! Effective laws are found in our statutes and then they get too politicized and personalized in practice, a concept I find hard to fathom. Ours is a set-up where the individual cannot be divorced from his or her progressive outlook or views. It is a system which is not detached enough to delve into an idea presented by an individual devoid of his/her personal traits, thus making the bottom line of the entire process politicized. It is sad to note that ours is also a society which thrives on ‘hearsay’ evidence and fabrication. I firmly believe that the citizen is intelligent enough to fathom what is right and wrong if their right to legitimate information is assured. Therefore, if there is a ‘search light’ such as the Right to Information Law, with the help of which the people can legitimately witness what is correct and not, it becomes a watchdog of all arms of governance.
Q: What do you think should be the responsibility of media to ensure that right to information is not abused?
A: The two most crucial areas which should be addressed I believe are the national security and individual privacy. Certain information, which is time-sensitive for instance, cannot be divulged in order to ensure national security. The other dimension of course is privacy. It is inevitable that individuals in spotlight have to sacrifice their privacy to a certain extent but the media should understand that any human being is entitled to some degree of privacy and this degree or the frame has to be defined and respected by media. Very often these parameters are not adhered to by the media and abused to their advantage. Nevertheless, all these parameters function in the backdrop of communication advancement of modern world. It is a fact that with the advent of latest tools of communication, it is a difficult task to conceal any information. Yet, as I said before, media has a responsibility in understanding the boundaries so that the right to information is not abused.
Q: Do you think this law can help to stamp out corruption from government institutions rather than appointing separate institutions to deal with such situations?
A: Creation of special institutions is always admission that the formal process has broken down. Sometimes special forums are created on political grounds to ‘prove a political point’ and unfortunately institutions which are created in a rush don’t serve any purpose. My view is that the existing structure comprising the legal mechanism, police force etc. must be streamlined to meet the challenges of today. Creating new agencies to address corruption will not be effective because the human resource that constitutes these agencies will remain the same although the canvas may change. Thus it is wise to remedy the existing structure rather than attempting to create something new which in turn may be yet another bottleneck.
Q: How do you perceive the Indian example in enacting the Right to Information Act?
A: I think the Indian Act is a very good benchmark for us. Indian society is very much an engaged proportion, their civil society groups are very active and the government- public coalition is very effective. If one peruses any Indian newspaper, several accounts of this legislation being activated can be witnessed. The media too is heavily engaged in this purpose. The Indian Act is very much a living piece of legislation and a true source of inspiration for us.