Right to information: A tool to empower people

Mar 18th, 2017 | By | Category: LEAD NEWS

Recently I had an opportunity to discuss the Right to Information Act with Will Ferroggiaro, a Washington DC-based consultant with more than 20 years’ experience working on freedom of expression, Government accountability and human rights.

He has worked on the right to information in countries around the world, including India, Japan and South Africa as well as the US. Previously, he directed the media and conflict project for Internews and led the freedom of information project for US NGO National Security Archive, where he negotiated policy with the White House and authored reports on implementation of right to information laws. He was also twice elected President of the American Society of Access Professionals.

The US equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966 when Lyndon B. Johnson was the President. Over 50 years the Act was amended seven times, including last year. Initially the US Government allocated $ 10,000 for the entire program in the first year.

Later it was realised that it was grossly inadequate and proper research, leadership and incentivisation or training was needed for successful implementation. The US Act was implemented after one year and Sri Lanka being the 115th country to adopt the right to information law, implemented it within six months of passing the law, which is a very ambitious target.

Ferroggiaro pointed out that the business community could use the provisions of RTI laws to access information about potential procurements, obtain data from competitors’ submissions to authorities or even learn about meetings between business rivals and the Government, thereby serving to counter corruption.

In response to a question over whether the cost of maintaining the whole mechanism of providing information to the people was worth it in relation to the current financial position of the Government and to the priority of the work that has to be attended, he said that this whole exercise could improve public trust in the Government. Citizens are given an opportunity to engage with the Government and through this process governments can acquire legitimacy.

Proactive disclosure

Ferroggiaro praised the provisions in Section 8 on proactive disclosure where every Minister has to publish a report biannually before 0230 June and 31 December every year to enable citizens to exercise their rights to access information granted under the Act. The report should contain the particulars relating to the organisation, functions, activities and duties of the Ministry, and of the Minister and of all the public authorities falling within the functions so assigned together with several other items of information.

Responding to a question as to what extent the Right to Information Act would help ethnic and religious harmony in the country, he said in other cases the availability of data and facts informed public debate and helped counter the spread of false information which hampers ethnic and religious harmony. As an example of where documents released showed the complexity of a topic, he referred to the relations the US had with China and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

While documents released under FOIA detailed the killing of students and others, other documents showed that the US at the same time was concerned about China’s input on North Korea and trade so the US relations could not be focused on one issue as horrible as the massacres were. When I noted that the same complexity exists with the ethnic and religious disharmony in Sri Lanka, he said the Right to Information Act might ease the situation by injecting public debate with data and facts. If there are allegations that the Government policy benefits one community, data will bring clarity since data can either prove or disprove. As President Reagan once said: “Trust, but verify.” Therefore the right to information is a tool which can be used in many ways.

I asked him about the revelations of WikiLeaks and of Edward Snowden. He said those were unauthorised disclosures but those revelations showed the weakness of the system. It seems to be that a lot of secrets were kept. The US after the Cold War never revisited the logic of its National Security Information. President Clinton and President Obama took steps to declassify certain information. If the information is classified, the necessary authority should be obtained to reveal such information and if it is declassified such authority is not needed.

Ferroggiaro noted that with the pressure of civil society and members of Congress, US administrations from Clinton to Obama have released diplomatic military and intelligence files to support truth and reconciliation processes in Latin American countries in order to help them address the past and increase their stability and governance. Continued on page 25

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Secretary of State Colin Powell, referring to a coup against President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, once said: “It is not a part of our history we are proud of.” This statement was made after the US had disclosed thousands of documents that showed US knowledge and involvement with the Chilean dictatorship, including its killing of Americans.

CIA revelations

Prior to the Iraq war in 2003, the CIA claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Many in the US even then said that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, the war was launched in large part based on the CIA’s claim, which it did not publicly detail in full. In the end there were no weapons of mass destruction and the CIA lost credibility.

Subsequently, when the CIA claimed North Korea had nuclear weapons, which happened to be true, people had reservations in believing the CIA. Therefore if more information is disclosed, it would contribute fruitfully to the public debate. The result is greater public trust and informed public input in policy.

I told him that Sri Lanka was not a rules-based country. We have the 13th Amendment to the Constitution where land and police powers are vested with the provinces. However, we still argue over whether to give those to the provinces or not. Also there was the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law passed in 1975.  We hardly use that. I asked him whether the Right to Information Act would also suffer the same fate.

He said he saw this as a political issue and not a cultural issue. For instance Donald Trump did not declare his assets before the election since it was not a law. Rather, it was a custom followed by all presidential candidates. Now there is an effort in Congress for it to become a law. He cited another example from the US where the CIA unlawfully destroyed videos of interrogations of certain terrorism detainees. Yet the FOIA law has been used by civil liberties groups to obtain information on similar detentions and to ensure due process even for those accused of terrorism.

The right to information will provide data as to why someone is not performing as required, adhering to law or favouring a constituent or business. Sri Lankans can make this country a rules-based country by using the right to information as a tool which can create an accountability culture here.

I asked him whether it would take several years for us to reap the benefits of the right to information. He said that the benefit was immediate. You have the right to exercise it. Information is power and those who hold information have power. The Government holds it temporarily to run the country on the public’s behalf. Since the people have sovereignty, ultimately the information should belong to them. Therefore there will be a shift of power. People have given the power to the Government on trust. People should be aware of their rights and exercise those rights. The right to information is a tool to enhance an accountability culture.

Sri Lanka has learnt the best practices of the world and incorporated them into the Right to Information Act. Sri Lanka in turn can share its experiences with the world.

Courtesy – Daily FT

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