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The Right to Information Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Sanjana, Sri Lanka Feb 22, 2003
Peace & Conflict , Technology   Opinions
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The Right to Information

“Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”
- UN General Assembly Resolution 59(I), 1946 -

In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, there has always been some tension between the need for openness and the desire for secrecy. The public has a legitimate interest in being kept informed about the activities of government, while government has a legitimate interest in withholding information in certain circumstances. Every government must indeed maintain a level of secrecy, but the contention has always been on the fulcrum that balances secrecy and civil liberty.

Globally, the advent of Information Communications Technology has led to diminished public tolerance of government secrecy. With this greater awareness of the public in the affairs of government comes the realization that in a parliamentary democracy such as ours, those elected to office to represent constituencies often do not fulfill their mandate. Voters who are tired of feeling left out of important policy decisions that fuel present moves towards a culture of voluntary disclosure by government and public authorities.

The importance of the Freedom to Information

Information is power. It is predictable, therefore, that those in authority will seek to manipulate others through the control of data. However, all information in a democratic society should be freely available unless there are specific, well-formulated reasons for withholding it in the interest of security.

The importance of freedom of information functions at a number of different levels: in itself, for the fulfillment of all other rights and as an underpinning of democracy. The importance of information is especially pertinent in Sri Lanka, where a protracted ethno-political conflict has created a body politic that is skeptical of information (because so little of it can be trusted) and yet blindly ascribes to communitarian hagiography that passes as history (for the want of better, more accurate information).

It is as an underpinning of democracy that freedom of information is most important. Information held by public bodies is not only for the benefit of officials or politicians but for the public as a whole. Unless there are good reasons for withholding such information, all interested parties should be able to access it. More importantly, freedom of information is a key component of transparent and accountable government. It plays a key role in enabling citizens to see what is going on within government, and in exposing corruption and mismanagement. Transparent and open government is also essential if voters are to be able to assess the performance of elected officials and if individuals are to exercise their democratic rights effectively, for example through timely protests against new policies, or by using their vote against candidates who have indulged in undemocratic activity.

Freedom of expression and access to information is a fundamental right and must be held as a cornerstone of democracy. In its absence, government can, and often does, behave with impunity. It is argued, however, that it is not an absolute right - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) for instance, specifies certain permissible constraints. One of these is the right of the state to withhold information ‘for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health and morals’. This is irascibly vague and provides many loopholes for governments to use this wording as a basis for restricting information that is inconsistent with their ambitions. For instance, it is now widely recognized that the Asian financial meltdown of the late 1990s was due in part to draconian censorship that prevented reporting on government corruption. (Indonesia and Malaysia are two good examples).
The public’s right to know is an intrinsic part of informed public debate, which has traditionally been dependent on the freedom to receive and impart information without government interference. However, it may also be argued that this does not mean a right to receive any type of information from the government. It is of paramount importance that any restrictions on information or expression regarding security matters must designate in law only the specific and narrow categories of information absolutely necessary to protect a legitimate national security concern. A threat to national security can be defined as ‘any expression or information that is intended to incite imminent violence, or is likely to incite violence. In addition, there must be a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence’ .The public interest in having information at all times must remain a priority consideration in any FOI Bill, and that any denial of this right be subject to independent review.

Along these lines, in a seminal judgment in 1982, the Indian Supreme Court held that, ‘The concept of an open Government is the direct emanation from the right to know which seems to be implicit in the right of free speech and expression…disclosure of information in regard to the functioning of government must be the rule and secrecy an exception justified only where the strictest requirement of public interest so demands’. In this particular case, the Supreme Court held that where the non-appointment of an additional Judge for a further term was challenged, correspondence between the Law Minister, the Chief Justice of the High Court, the State Government and the Chief Justice of India should be disclosed.

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Sanjana Hattotuwa is a Rotary World Peace Scholar presently pursuing a Masters in International Studies from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. The views expressed here are his own. He can be contacted at hatt@wow.lk.
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