I was interviewed by BBC Sinhala in London on 21 June 2016, on the eve of Sri Lanka’s Parliament passing the long-waited Right to Information law. In this interview with BBC’s Saroj Pathirana, I look at the journey so far (it took over 2o years to get this law adopted) and challenges than remain.
Chief among the challenges from now on: reorienting all state structures to be open and info-sharing rather than closed and secretive (default mode until now); raising public awareness on the provisions and benefits of RTI law (including debunking of myths and misconceptions); and learning to be a more information-literate society as a whole.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 1 May 2016), I return to the topic of Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law that has recently been tabled in Parliament.
Over 15 years in the making, the RTI law is to be debated in June and expected to be adopted with multi-party consensus. The law represents a transformation across government by opening up hitherto closed public information (with certain cleared specified exceptions).
While media can also benefit from RTI, it is primarily a law for ordinary citizens to demand and receive information related to everyday governance (most of it at local levels). For this, citizens need to understand the RTI process and potential benefits. Media can play a major role in explaining RTI law, and promoting its use in many different ways to promote the public interest and to nurture a culture of evidence-based advocacy for good governance and public accountability.
In this column, I look at how RTI can benefit citizens, and share examples from other South Asian countries where even school children are using RTI to solve local level problems that affect their family, school or local community.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in issue of 17 January 2016), I critique the public communications practices President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka – and call for better listening and more engagement by the head of state.
I point out that Sirisena is in danger of overexposure in the mainstream media, which I call the ‘Premadasa Syndrome’ (as this bad practice was started by President R Premadasa who was in office from 1988 to May 1993). I argue that citizens don’t need to be force-fed a daily dose of presidential activities on prime time news or in the next day’s newspapers. If public documentation is needed, use the official website.
Like other politicians in Sri Lanka, Sirisena uses key social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to simply disseminate his speeches, messages and photos. But his official website has no space for citizens to comment. That is old school broadcasting, not engaging.
This apparent aloofness, and the fact that he has not done a single Twitter/Facebook Q&A session before or after the election, detracts from his image as a consultative political leader.
On the whole, I would far prefer to see a more engaged (yet far less preachy!) presidency. It would be great to have our First Citizen using mainstream media as well as new media platforms to have regular conversations with the rest of us citizens on matters of public interest. A growing number of modern democratic rulers prefer informal citizen engagement without protocol or pomposity. President Sirisena is not yet among them.
It was also Sri Lanka’s first national level election where smartphones and social media played a key role and probably made a difference in the outcome. During the weeks running up to 8 January, hundreds of thousands of Lankans from all walks of life used social media to vent their frustrations, lampoon politicians, demand clarity on election manifestos, or simply share hopes for a better future.
As I documented shortly afterwards, most of us were not supporting any political party or candidate. We were just fed up with nearly a decade of mega-corruption, nepotism and malgovernance. Our scattered and disjointed protests – both online and offline – added up to just enough momentum to defeat the strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa. Just weeks earlier, he had appeared totally invincible.
Thus began the era of yaha-palanaya or good governance.
In real life, democracy is a work in progress and good governance, an arduous journey. In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in issue of 10 January 2016), I argue that voting in two key elections during 2015 (including Parliamtnary Election held on 17 August) was the easy part. We citizens now have to be vigilant and stay engaged with the government to ensure that our politicians actually walk their talk.
Here, we can strategically use social media among other advocacy methods and tools.
After many years of advocacy by civil society groups and journalists, Sri Lanka is set to soon adopt a law guaranteeing citizens’ Right to Information (RTI, also known as freedom of information laws in some countries). With that, we will join over 100 other countries that have introduced such progressive laws.
The first step is already taken. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in Parliament in April 2015, made the right to information a fundamental right. The Right to Information Act is meant to institutionalize the arrangement – i.e. put in place the administrative arrangement where a citizen can seek and receive public information.
RTI signifies unleashing a new potential, and a major change in status quo. First, we need to shake off a long historical legacy of governments not being open or accountable to citizens.
In this week’s Ravaya column, (appearing in issue of 22 Nov 2015), I explore how RTI can gradually lead to open government. I also introduce the 9 key principles of RTI.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I chronicle the struggle by people of the Republic of Maldives – Asia’s smallest state by land area and population – to achieve democratic pluralism and good governance.
In October 2008, long-term autocratic ruler President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was defeated in the country’s first multi-party elections by Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP). Nasheed, who had been a political prisoner and suffered much under the previous regime, ushered in a new era for his nearly 400,000 people – for a while.
From almost the beginning, the Nasheed administration was systematically undermined and eventually he was ousted by the former autocrat’s appointees and promoters whose key public sector positions were left untouched by Nasheed despite there being many allegations of corruption.
As noted in an editorial in The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) on 15 Jan 2015: “In February 2012, after just three and a half years in office, Nasheed was forced to resign following months of military-backed protests. Why? Largely because he was reluctant to remove dozens of Gayoom loyalists in key sections of the public service and the judiciary, who eventually helped the opposition to plot his downfall.
“In Nasheed’s own words, ‘I didn’t want to take action against them, despite public demands, as it would be tantamount to behaving like Gayoom, ruthless and abusing of power.’ As weeks and months went past with Gayoom cronies still continuing in key positions, Nasheed’s hold on power weakened and led to his resignation which he said was forced on his by the military.
“These are lessons for Sri Lanka’s new rulers who must clean up the system and take action while at the same time displaying that it is not a political witch-hunt.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I discuss the history and current state of play in relation to right to information (RTI). This is in the context of the new Lankan government planning to introduce an RTI law.
To review the work of government at all levels, citizens/voters need to access public sector information – about decisions, proceedings, budgets, expenditures, problems and performance. Close to 100 countries now have laws guaranteeing people’s RTI.
Sadly, Sri Lanka is lagging behind all other SAARC countries, five of which have already enacted RTI laws and two (Afghanistan and Bhutan) have draft bills under consideration. Attempts to introduce RTI in Sri Lanka were repeatedly thwarted by the previous government, which cited various excuses for avoding such a progressive law.
In this column, I also argue that RTI’s effectiveness depends on imagination, innovation and persistence on the part of all citizens. Its best results will accrue in a society and political culture where evidence and analysis are respected. Sri Lanka is not there yet.
RTI will be a significant milestone in a long journey that must continue.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I continue the Sinhala adaptation of my June 2014 TV interview with Dr Rajesh Tandon of India, an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development.
Last week, we discussed the civil space and political space available for advocacy and activism – and how far civil society activists have been able to engage the formal political process in India.
Today, we discuss how anti-corruption movement evolved into the Aam Aadmi Party, AAP, and the relevance of India’s experiences to Sri Lanka. We also discuss India’s Right to Information Act and how that has empowered citizens to seek a more open and accountable government at national, state and local levels. Dr Tandon ends by emphasizing that democracy is a work in progress that needs constant engagement and vigilance.
Civil society – in its widest sense – played a key role in the recent peaceful change of government in Sri Lanka. It was civil society advocacy – for ending corruption, ensuring independence of judiciary, and increasing democratic checks and balances on the executive presidency – that inspired a larger citizen demand for better governance. The parliamentary opposition was pushed into belated action by these citizen demands.
What is the role of civil society in the political process? How and where does the civil space intersect with the political space? How can civil society engage formal political parties without being subsumed or co-opted?
In June 2014, I posed these questions to Dr Rajesh Tandon of India, an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development, when I interviewed him for Young Asia Television (YATV) – I was just ‘standing in’ for the regular host Sanjana Hattotuwa.
That interview’s contents are now more relevant to Sri Lanka than 8 months ago. So I have just rendered it into Sinhala. In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I share the first half of the interview. To be continued next week…