Public policing of government


Daily News Editorial

The long awaited Right to Information Act will come into operation from today, opening the doors to the public to have their finger on the pulse of the government, so to speak. The public will now be able to demand for information from any Public Authority designated by the RTI Commission such as a Ministry, Department, Public Corporation, Local and Political Authorities as well as Companies, NGOs, Educational Institutions to the extent defined in the Act, and all Courts and Tribunals.

Sri Lanka has now joined the advanced countries such as India and the USA which has long established such a mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability in governance. The recent US Presidential election campaign showed to what extent the American public was making use of the RTI to expose the doings of their politicians and public officials. It is hoped that the Sri Lankan public too would be as enthusiastic in seizing this opportunity to ensure probity and transparency in the conduct of politicians and public officials.

Image result for right to information cartoons

Cartoon added by TW from internet

True, parliamentary watchdog COPE could demand for documents and question public officials. But this process is flawed to the extent that there is always the possibility of concealment. Besides one recalls not long ago Sri Lankan airlines refusing to cooperate with COPE under some pretext with the watchdog remaining helpless. But under RTI, all officials in the designated bodies are compelled to provide all information asked for, with an Appeal process too included in the event of non compliance. No longer can an official now get away with the usual comment apita ea visthara denna behe (We are not permitted to provide such information). Bringing the NGOs too into the orbit is a good move considering how these bodies are usually viewed with a jaundiced eye by the enlightened public.

With the operation of the RTI Sri Lanka will be very much an “open society” where nothing could be swept under the carpet any longer by scheming politicians and bureaucrats. The designated state bodies would now be obliged to provide all information demanded by the public that hitherto were a no go zone to them, barring sensitive info that may impinge on national security or that of a highly personal nature. Other than that, nothing could be held back upon demand for information on a particular tender or income details of a bureaucrat, official or any government panjandrum. In short the state service will now be open house that will come under close scrutiny of the general public.

There will be no need for demonstrations now by trade unions with accusations that this official or that Ministry Secretary had resorted to bribery, cut shady deals or squandered public funds. All they have to do is demand for the records from the relevant state body and then go public. Particularly, all school admissions will come under close scrutiny, with interested parties now able to obtain all the relevant details from the CEB, Water Board etc. to unravel the bogus addresses furnished by parents to admit their children to popular schools. This would also now make the Principals and school authorities take extra care in school admissions lest they too be exposed.

The Yahapalanaya Government, particularly Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, should be commended for their efforts to see through the RTI. One recalls Jayasuriya when he a minister in the Rajapaksa government making a great effort to introduce the Act but to no avail. This is understandable considering the extent of the shady deals that enriched the VVIPs, their relatives and henchmen that are now being unraveled, with all its sordid details. The National Carrier would certainly not have suffered the financial ruin it is in today had such a mechanism as the RTI been in existence at the time. That is, if there was anyone bold enough to ask for information even if such a mechanism did exist.

It is hoped that professional bodies and civil society organisations such as the Friday Forum would now set the ball rolling and demand information that is no longer classified, to expose the doings in the Banks and other financial institutions. No doubt, such organisations are going to be a thorn in the flesh of those prone to corruption. It is such groups that possess intellectual know how and the necessary wherewithal to deal with such complicated issues that are out of the ken of the ordinary public.

The RTI would also have come like manna from heaven to those anti-corruption crusaders such as JVP’s Wasantha Samarasinghe who no doubt are is going to keep the rogue elements on their toes. The RTI has also succeeded in taking the bottom out the Joint Opposition’s much touted anti-corruption campaign where they have named a so called Top Ten corrupt government politicians. Instead of summoning media conferences and playing to the gallery, all that the likes of Mahindananda Aluthgamage now have to do is go before the RTI Commission with their cases. Their corruption accusations will no longer be valid when they have been given the opportunity to back up their allegations with facts.