In 2004, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka held that the freedom of speech and expression, including publication, guaranteed by Article 14(a) of the Constitution, to be meaningful and effective, should carry within its scope an implicit right of a person to secure relevant information from a public authority in respect of a matter that should be in the public domain and that it should necessarily be so where the public interest in the matter outweighs the confidentiality that attaches to the affairs of State and official communications. The Court held that a bare denial of access to official information amounts to an infringement of the rights guaranteed by Article 14(a).
For purposes of good governance and accountability, and to combat corruption, it is vital to have a specific law which provides the right to access official information. Such a law promotes transparency of public actions, will help to reduce the misuse of public funds, and make Government more accountable. It will also make it much easier for socially responsible, pro-active citizens and the media to help protect the people’s rights.
It may be noted that the Government ratified the International Covenant on Political and Social Rights as far back as 1980 and, therefore, there is no legitimate excuse for not making whatever new laws or amendments to existing laws are required to implement the provisions of this Covenant. In fact, the Law Reform Commission submitted a draft bill to the Ministry of Justice as far back as 2001 and this was forwarded to the Ministry of Information, where it seems to have been shelved indefinitely, allowing free rein to politicians and public servants to indulge in all kinds of irregularities and misuse in relation to the expenditure of public funds, including criminal misappropriations, fraudulent investments and a whole host of related abuses.
It is especially important that the media should have the right to secure whatever information they require to keep the public informed of important facts which may have been suppressed, as invariably happens, regarding those highly questionable enterprises which are promoted by politicians and their cronies for their personal gain, but under the guise of public demand. The need for timely access to information by the media is paramount when it comes to the critical study of project proposals and their viability, examination of intentionally skewed specifications and tender documents, evaluation of tenders, questioning of post-award modifications to tender conditions in favour of selected parties at the expense of the public, and so on.
This law should include a chapter to protect Awhistle-blowers, ie. those persons who, by virtue of their official position have access to confidential information, and take the initiative in exposing acts of fraud or corruption. Whistle-blowers should be protected from being penalised by way of dismissal, transfer or any other revengeful disciplinary action by their superior officers, whose offences may have come to light by the relevant documents being exposed to the scrutiny of the appropriate authorities, the media or the public.
Information which threatens the security of the State would be exempted from being released to private applicants and the media but there should be Select Committees of Parliament to monitor continuously at least the purchase of military goods because we have seen over the years that there is many a crooked deal being sanctioned under the guise of security secrecy requirements.
How will this law be put to use? In one Indian example taken at random, a private citizen applied for details of a project undertaken by a state government. Several malpractices were detected, including the payment of salaries to non-existent workers. The persons involved in the fraud were later prosecuted. In another example, a peanut seller observed that the official car of a government officer was always on the run. He (the peanut seller) applied for a copy of the car’s logbook, which indicated that several unauthorised trips had been made. On the evidence thus revealed, the officer had to reimburse to the government the cost of all his unauthorised trips.
We call upon the more responsible MPs to take the initiative to move rapidly to get the Right to Information Law finalised and passed by Parliament.