Seeing through the Fog of War

There is growing unease about the health of Sri Lanka’s peace process. Despite lofty pronouncements at the UN and largely supine gestures from both the Government and the LTTE to the international community that seek to assure them that all is well, the animosity and growing hostilities on the ground tell a different story, of wars won and battles lost, of territory gained and people forgotten. The media tells us that we are winning this war – that our defensive offences are getting the better of an enervated Tiger menace. To stop now would be folly, some say. To others, this is the masochistic release of pent up frustration over 4 years of a ceasefire that allowed no vent for the inclusion and transformation of radical elements of polity and society. Largely ignored in the repartee of accusation and counter-accusation between the Government and the LTTE is the importance of accurate, impartial information and the public’s right to know. The right to information is a fundamental human right and helps citizens ascertain the justification for and effectiveness of actions taken in their name and in the name of national security and all curtailment of civil liberties under emergency laws.

Whatever we believe is the key to the transformation of this wretched conflict, today we live in the fog of war – we cannot accurately assess the accuracy and veracity of developments in war and peace in Sri Lanka. To openly critically analyse and question the strategies and vision (or lack thereof) of the incumbent government is anathema and subjects one to hate speech and the possibility of being marked out and summarily killed as a traitor. We cannot speak to or of the LTTE – what drives it, what it’s official responses are to actions on the ground, what it’s key leaders think, how they feel the peace process can be resuscitated, what responsibility they take for the current breakdown of peace negotiations and the continued killing of civilians. The media, under a gag order by no less than the highest political office in Sri Lanka, out of fear for their professional and personal security only freely report on propaganda doled out by various arms of the Government.

How does one see through the fog of war?

The availability and accessibility of information is critical in this regard. For instance, not a single political actor in favour of war today speaks of daily defence expenditures incurred on account of the current bent of the incumbents in power to address an essential question of identity, inclusion and ethnicity through brute force. This is not to say that war is itself pyrrhic, though there may be those who say so. Rather, it is to use information, say by the Fourth Estate operating in the public interest, to critically analyse the actions of the government to bring about a resolution to what ails Sri Lanka. Dispassionately, it may well be that a brutish and short war may bring about a “ripe moment” for the resumption of peace talks. Or it may not. Citizens are free to make up their own minds, but the formation of a considered opinion is predicated on the availability of information in the public domain.

To this end, it’s useful to think of championing war and peace through the burden of evidence, which in turn, is based on the accessibility of (ideally independently verifiable) information supporting each cause and is open to further public scrutiny. For instance, those who champion military offensives to counter possible threats to national security must clearly explain how immediate this threat is, the exact nature of the threat, the level of force used to mitigate the threat, the definition of “success” of a particular military offensive and at what cost – financial, social and political etc. Caught between the often incredible and politically biased pronouncements of the Defence spokesperson and the perennial insincerity of the LTTE’s spokesperson, the Sri Lankan public today consume what is an extremely limited information base packaged through the sensationalism of various media.

This is a disturbing trend. In light of the on-going violence in Sri Lanka, the numbing of the collective social conscience to the outlandish propaganda paraded as fact by all parties to the conflict is cause for sombre reflection on how much we trust that which we consume in the media. While it is often politically expedient for any government or terrorist movement to curtail the free flow of information, the Right to Information is a pillar of democracy and needs to be recognised as such by citizens. It is only through raising public consciousness of the grossly restricted sources of information that we consume today that we can impress upon those who presently throttle the well-springs of information to allow for the informed public scrutiny and critique of actors involved in war and peace and their actions.

Of course, such a process is bound to encounter great resistance. There is however, no viable alternative. The Right to Information is a cornerstone of our development. Sri Lanka’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in particular is founded upon the establishment of a Right to Information framework able to reduce corruption, nepotism and the waste of public authorities in the provision of essential goods and services. The right to information is also an effective mechanism by which the embedded culture of secrecy can be transformed into one of transparency. By promoting open governance and helping to ease corruption, right to information also encourages investors to have much more confidence in transparent and accountable public institutions. Thus, the right to information can also encourage foreign investment and help to bolster economic growth and development. With the right to information in place, citizens can be empowered to scrutinise and monitor government decision-making and bring public officials and politicians to account, helping to crack down on the scourge of corruption that has bedevilled sustainable development in Sri Lanka.

However, having Right to Information legislation alone is rarely enough to ensure access to information for the public good. Citizens must always remain vigilant in defending their right in the face of apathetic public officials and reticent governments. This is especially so in times of heightened violence, when many actors jostle to control the flow of information to suit their predetermined goals. Writing in February 2002 in The Daily Mirror on the need for Right to Information to under-gird what was then a nascent peace process, I noted:

What the government must also realise is that democracy is quintessentially about the adherence of the government to the will of the people. This basic accountability is impossible unless government is deeply committed to open and transparent governance – only possible in a culture where there is a free-flow of information between public authorities and citizens.

Recognising that there are categories of information that will always require protection and will never be part of the public domain, but also of the need for the government to continuously justify the existence of such categories and the information therein, what we propose is the urgent need for Right to Information legislation that strengthens the rights of all citizens and by extension, peace in Sri Lanka.

Today is Right to Know day.

Use it to ask your local municipal council why garbage lays unattended, breeding disease. Ask your local politician why the potholes on public roads continue to widen and deepen. Ask your local head of police why neighbourhood crime is on the ascendant, and why a country with perhaps the highest per capita ratio of on-going police investigations fails to produce culprits of serious crimes before the law. Use it to question why we have 200,000 IDPs today without adequate food, shelter or security. Use it to compare how much we have spent on defending our homeland against how little we have spent in investing for our future through strengthening health and education. Use it to question why we spend millions on armoured vehicles for politicians, when reading through the political history of Sri Lanka, one is pleasantly surprised to note a time when MP’s visited their constituencies using public transport. Use it to ask small questions, for which there are no easy answers, that subverts a culture of ignorance that allows governments and politicians do as they will with scant regard for public accountability.

The Right to Know day reminds us of our larger civic responsibility to ensure that those we elect to power are held accountable to inviolable democratic principles. It is also a reminder to look inward, at the institutions we work in and the initiatives we spearhead, that may be as deeply flawed by the same opaqueness, parochialism and bias that we critique elsewhere.

Today we need to ask ourselves, as individuals and as a nation, why we are where we are today and what information, from where, will help us get out of this mess. This introspection can help strengthen peace and reconciliation through the realisation that the provision of accurate, impartial and timely information in the public domain is a vital ingredient of an effervescent democracy.

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