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


Peace and the right to information
Media reportage of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is often tragically comic. Accurate reporting of the conflict is hampered by restrictions on access to the Northeast, and a reliance on statements by the government, military or LTTE, which are most often misinformation or propaganda. This is comic to the extent that the public, whilst realizing the questionable veracity of news on the conflict, nevertheless continue to digest biased reportage as the ‘Truth’. It is tragic to realize that it is this very inability to investigate the true nature of events that has led to an ever widening schism between the communities of Sri Lanka.

While recognizing the need for confidentiality in some respects, the peace process in Sri Lanka must be a transparent one. A peace process enshrouded in secrecy will only serve to fuel extremist opinion. The plethora of conspiracy theories in Sri Lanka also stem from a dearth of accurate information regarding the peace process.

“The Sri Lanka people bear the human and financial cost of the conflict, but government and military policies and practices regarding the conflict are inaccessible to the public and remain largely shielded from public scrutiny and challenge, precluding citizens from participating in a meaningful way in promoting a solution to the conflict. The Sri Lanka people are thus unable to pursue their legitimate right to monitor the peace talks, challenge either party for lack of political will or commitment to peace, or even to form opinions and political loyalties in an informed manner.”
It is also important to recognize that the freedom to information must not be a tool that is manipulated for the gain of one stakeholder. For instance, during the 1994-1995 peace talks, despite the fact that the letters exchanged between Prabhakaran and Chandrika Kumaratunge were confidential, they were often printed in Sri Lankan newspapers or in LTTE publications. When the government felt as though the LTTE was stalling or spreading false information about the talks, letters that vindicated the government’s stance would appear in newsprint. Similarly, the LTTE published some letters that portrayed its sincerity in the peace process. In the end, the exposure of the correspondence to the media only served to undermine the efforts to build trust between the two parties. As expectation began to overshadow the progress of the talks, letters were drafted and released to pre-empt and to counter potential public backlashes. In this way, the letters and the peace process became increasingly polemical, and drained the peace process of urgency and importance.

The freedom of information, coupled with sound media ethics can buttress the peace process in Sri Lanka by nurturing journalism of a stature that encourages the process of healing and reconciliation. While the process of negotiations and future peace talks must be as transparent as possible to allay any fears and doubts of the legitimacy of the process, stakeholder opinion and interests must be portrayed in a dispassionate light that lends itself to critical examination. The public’s right to know is predicated upon the belief that the free flow of information helps inform public opinion and debate. The government must, in the present instant, make sure that its interests are made public and its position regarding the future course of a resolution to the conflict made clear. The government must also encourage the process of inter-communal understanding by highlighting the real needs and aspirations of those affected by the conflict.

The need of the hour
As much as the right to information is a cardinal principle of a functioning democracy and a principle tenet of good governance, the present government must be under no illusion about the difficulty of introducing FOI legislation in Sri Lanka. The Law Commission in its Report on Freedom of Information in 1996 pointed out, ‘the current administrative policy appears to be that all information in the possession of the government is secret unless there is good reason to allow public access.’ In light of a public administration predicated on a culture on non-disclosure, the very nature and quality of public discussion is significantly impoverished without the nourishment of information from public authorities. To guarantee freedom of expression without including freedom of information would be a formal exercise, denying both effective expression in practice and a key goal which free expression seeks to serve.
Final Thoughts
There is some consensus, even among those who most vigorously support the right to information, that there are categories of information that will always require protection and will never be part of the public domain. But this only makes up for a small portion of the data that is part of government. A key issue in this regard is how to determine the criteria that will guide decisions on what data will remain classified and what will be publicly released. A change of mindset is necessary here – from a militaristic possession of information, to a more benevolent government, which treats all information as a catalyst that informs public debate and opinion.


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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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