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Information Bill discussed by expert panel
News from Srilanka
Chairman of the All Party Representative Committee Prof. Tissa Vitharana said on Tuesday that the Executive Presidency should be abolished with the end of the incumbent President’s term of office and advocated a return to the Parliamentary Executive system, in which the President would act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers.
Addressing a Seminar organized by the Sri Lanka Anti-Corruption Program and the Sri Lanka Press Institute on “Freedom of Information: From Proposal to Law”, Prof. Vitharana acknowledged that a large number of the country’s problems stem from the Executive Presidential system and the prevailing electoral system in Sri Lanka, he said, will recede into deeper turmoil if both systems are not changed.
Speaking further on the draft of the “Freedom of Information” bill, Prof. Vitharana said, “It is meaningless to have freedom of speech without freedom of information. We must have the bill passed for that reason, as soon as possible.” The Minister, supporting the establishment of a Freedom of Information Commission, as envisaged in the draft Act, said it was an excellent proposal, since areas in which information cannot be divulged, can still be accessed through this Commission.
Referring to some shortcomings of the proposals, he said that no mention was made of a legal personality being included in the Commission. “There should be at least one person who comes from a legal background included in it,” he insisted.
The Minister also expressed reservations over the use of the term “public corporation” in the draft proposals as it excludes the institutions incorporated under the Companies Act. He pointed out that in companies like SriLankan Airlines the majority of shares are government-controlled and suggested that the restriction be removed so that the disparity between citizens and government can be narrowed. “The extent to which the gap is narrowed is the extent to which corruption will be curbed,” Prof. Vitharana asserted.
Drawing attention to the importance of ICT in the fight against corruption, he said that every insitution shuold have a website providing details of their work. It should also be made mandatory to publish any in the newspapers new project that is being undertaken to keep people informed, and to enable them to intervene effectively to safeguard their collective interests, he said.
Making the keynote address, Mrinal Pande, Editor of Hindustan said the Right to Information Act, which came into force in October 2005, made India the 55th country in the world to have this Act. She explained that the RTI is all about empowering citizens with clear and usuable information.
“The Act gave a billion people the rights so far enjoyed only by 800 legislators. As it stands today, it is a part of the Fundamental Rights granted to all Indian citizens under Article 19 (1) of the Consitution, that grants the freedom of speech and expression to all, regardless of caste, creed or gender. Notably, the Act confers upon citizens the Right to Information and not just records or documents,” she said.
Mrs. Pande stated that the biggest boost in promoting good governance comes from IT and pointed out that all information must be computerised as part of the RTI. “Those ministries which have the least to hide have been fully computerised whereas those who have something to hide are dragging their feet,” she said. The Hindustan Editor also noted that the real challenge faced by India today, was to ensure that the Act is implemented effectively.
Rohan Edrisinha, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, outlinined some recommendations to improve the set of proposals. He noted that the exemptions clause should be narrowed so that more institutions will be made accountable; proactive powers should be incoporated in order to compell ministries to be more transparent; and a clause to protect whistleblowers must be included.
Edrisinha further observed that it is essential to change the attitude of bureaucrats, as they could feel threatened by the proposed Act. He expressed skepticism about the chances of pushing the proposals through Parliament, because the convenience of the executive will emerge as a stumbling block.
M. D. A. Harold, Chairman of Transparency International Sri Lanka, said the draft Freedom of Information bill was currently with the Ministry of Justice, and no one knows how long it will remain there. “We should not allow it to sleep there,” he affirmed.
Manik de Silva, Editor of the Sunday Island, chaired the panel discussion.
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