You would think that with fighting between government forces and secessionist Tamils finished in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government might ease its grip on public information–information which is really the property of the country’s citizens, not whichever administration happens to be holding political power. In 2004, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s cabinet did approve a Freedom of Information Bill, but parliament was dissolved and the bill never went further.
The issue has been coming and going over the years. The last attempt at legislative change came in 2011, when it was defeated by the government in parliament. One Sri Lankan editor recalls President Mahinda Rajapaksa as telling a group of editors around that time that the country doesn’t need what has been relabelled as a Right to Information Act because he would answer whatever questions they might have.
And it doesn’t look like that attitude is going to change. On July 27, Secretary to the Ministry of Media and Information Charitha Herath told a meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC ) in Colombo that the Act will not be coming before parliament any time soon. The reason: national security would be threatened if the general population knew what the government has done, is doing, or might be considering doing. “It’s none of your business” is the official attitude, even though the United Nations declared access to information a fundamental right in 1946. Under U.N. Resolution 59(I): “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” Adding insult to injury, Herath’s statement was in answer to a question from an internship program for journalists and media officials.
Almost always, when a government has something to hide, it says access to information will threaten national security– even though national security issues are exempt from disclosure in all nations’ right to information laws.
If you have been following Sri Lankan media you are aware that there has been considerable infighting in the past few weeks. But Herath’s weak excuse for not enacting a freedom of information law was enough to get four of the country’s media groups– the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, and the Free Media Movement — to issue a joint letter castigating him.
The groups point out, rightly, that “Over 100 democratic countries around the world, including most of South Asia, have empowered their citizens with such legislation, and we see no reason for this government not to do likewise.” That is pretty much the same point I made in a video presentation during a panel with Sri Lanka journalists on May 30, marking World press Freedom Day.