Right to Information, a key to democracy

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Many constitutional reforms have been introduced in Sri Lanka to strengthen the democratic principle. Among those, the 19th Amendment holds a unique position in the political context of Sri Lanka that has established the principle of democracy to a certain extent. Domestically, the 19th Amendment laid the foundation for a more democratic path, creating the legal framework to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens of this country more than ever before.Therefore, it is justifiable to say that the right of citizens to access information could be recognised as one of the most important keys to democracy.

Further, as per Article14A. (1) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka,

“Every citizen shall have the right of access to any information as provided by law, being information that is required for exercise or protection of citizen’s rights held by:

(a) The State, a Ministry or any Government Department or any statutory body established or created or under any law;

(b) Any Ministry of a Minister of the Board of Ministers of a Province or any Department or any statutory body established or created by a statute of a Provincial Council;

(c) Any Local Authority and;

(d) Any other person, who has such information relating to any institute referred to in sub- paragraphs (a), (b), or (c) of this paragraph.”

Article 14A.(2)says that,

“No restrictions shall be placed on the right declared and recognised by this Article, other than such restrictions prescribed by law as are necessary for a domestic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity, or public safety for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals and of the reputation or the right of others, privacy, prevention of contempt of court, protection of parliamentary privilege, for preventing the disclosure of information communicated in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the Judiciary.”

The Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2016, which was recently enacted into law, giving due legal recognition to the right to information recognised under international law, is important to the people of Sri Lanka. Indeed, this Act is not limited to law, but for the rights enshrined in the Act to be realised, the people must be alert and have a better understanding of their rights as well.

With the establishment of republic States, a concept that signifies that the ownership of the State lies with people evolved. State and public institutions are maintained with tax money of the people. Thus, the fundamental principle being established is that the people have the right to know the information of which the functions of the State are accomplished using public funds. Three main conditions must be met in order to successfully defend the aforementioned right to information. These are, access to information, the responsibility of State institutions to publish information, and the responsibility to release information.

People are dynamic. It is common for them to comment, discuss, listen to ideas and discussions, and come up with new ideas. In this way, it is very important to build ideas and express opinions. This is because he or she has to study what information he or she can get about the premise and what is his or her right to do so. It is very easy if the relevant information is easily available. However, if such information, which has a direct bearing on the development of opinion and opinion formation, is kept confidential and subject to severe restrictions and access restrictions, then the ability to express opinions or form opinions seems to be impaired.

For these reasons, the right to information has been the focus of public attention since the development of human rights throughout history. Accordingly, in various forms, the right to information, its so-called parental right of the right to freedom of expression have developed affiliated and independently in the international arenas and gradually entered into the legal systems of the party states.

Considering all, this article provides a comprehensive analysis of the right to information and its importance among the fundamental rights of citizens.

I. To promote a democratic system of government.

Information is a basic concept of democracy and it is truly essential for democratisation.The ruler is elected with the votes of the citizens of the country for democratic governance.The people exercise their right to vote and elect the rulers of the country for the benefit of the public. It creates an agreement between the public and the ruler which is stated in Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. As per the provisions, it is obvious that the ruler is bound to serve the people, pointing out that the sovereignty of Sri Lanka belongs to the citizens of this country. Accordingly, the public should have the right to access information of public authorities.It is the responsibility of any government that recognises democracy to ensure that information exists for the good of the people and to constantly encourage the public to obtain information as well.

II. To open up the administration of a country and thereby actively involve the people in the decision-making process.

When a State grants its citizens the right to information, there is inherent transparency in the administration of that country. Then if there is any doubt among the people about the ruler, providing information will help to dispel it. Thereby, the public will be able to get involved in the Government’s decision-making process by learning about the ruler, their affairs, and the affairs of State institutions. On the other hand, when the right to information is not guaranteed, the public is prevented from actively or meaningfully being involved in the Government decision-making process.

III. To increase the accountability of public officers.

The concealment of information by any government inherently encourages misconduct such as fraud and corruption and is detrimental to the governance of a country. It is through the right to information that public officials are constantly held responsible and accountable for their duties.The Act prevents public officials from acting arbitrarily, thereby increasing the level of accountability of administrative officials and constantly reminding them that they must act in the best interests of the people.

IV. Ensuring the principle of good governance.

The right to information is one of the paramount features introduced by the principle of good governance that has been constantly talked about in society in recent times.Its main objective is to create an efficient and effective administrative system in the country. It aims to work efficiently not only at the individual level, but also at the organisational level to achieve the goals set out there. In addition, it aims to make all processes, policies, and procedures systematic and to make administrators responsible and accountable.

V. To promote the economic condition of the country.

The right to information is one of the key facts affecting the economy of a country.For example, a foreign investor studies the economic nature and governance of this country before entering the market. In such a case, the ability to easily obtain the required information from a government institution without any delay is a very valuable opportunity for the investor. Failure to do so may result in the investor having doubts about the governance of the particular country. Thereby,he will think twice about investing in that state. This situation applies not only to foreign investors, but also to businessmen and investors in Sri Lanka
as well.

VI. To reduce fraud and corruption of public servants.

Another advantage of the right to information is the ability to reduce fraud and corruption in government institutions. If a public servant misuses the money of a State, it will be detrimental to that institution as well as to the whole country. Therefore, it can be logically pointed out that through the right to information, public officials are less likely to resort to fraud and corruption. In this context, the waste of public resources is being minimised and public officials are being used responsibly.

In a further study, the importance of the right to information will be well illustrated by the following points:

VII. Making good use of tax.

VIII. Facilitate access to space for journalists.

IX. To create a relaxed state of mind in society.

In conclusion, the Right to Information laws, alongside expanding the citizen’s rights, should be systematically employed to transform governance.These laws could be a powerful magnet for mobilising the people and enthusing them to use these laws to enhance and expand their choices for their betterment. Right to Information laws directly contribute to improvement in governance by breaking down the barriers between the Government and the people by enhancing trust.Right to Information is the most powerful assault on developing countries’ endemic corruption. Right to Information should be an instrument to bring an end to the culture of government secrecy and the battle for transparency is to be fought and won in the minds of the public servants.

About the author:

B. Kavindu M.H. Peiris graduated with the Degree of Bachelor of Laws with Second Class Upper Division Honours from the Department of Law in the School of Law, Policing and Forensic at Staffordshire University, United Kingdom. Currently, he is reading for Attorney-at-Law (1st year) examinations at the Sri Lanka Law College.

Please note that all content is written after due diligence and does not reflect the opinion of any government or private institution or university except the author’s personal opinion.

By B. Kavindu M.H. Peiris