“The Commission was deeply disturbed by persistent reports concerning attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions including news websites and killing of journalists and the fact that these incidents remain to be conclusively investigated and perpetrators brought to justice. The Commission was also alarmed by the deplorable attack on the Editor of the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna, which occurred while the Commission’s sittings were still in progress. The Commission condemns this attack. Such actions clearly place great obstacles in the way of any reconciliation efforts. Any failure to investigate and prosecute offenders would undermine the process of reconciliation and the Rule of Law.”
Final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Section 5. 155, Pg. 197
The LLRC report goes on to explicitly note that “freedom of expression and right to information, which are universally regarded as basic human rights play a pivotal role in any reconciliation process” and that “any restrictions placed on media freedom would only contribute to an environment of distrust and fear within and among ethnic groups”. Local and international right groups have said the same, many times over. The LLRC’s reiteration reignites debates over the on-going censorship of critical web media and right to information legislation. With its unimpeachable ‘domestic’ constitution under the writ of the President himself, the LLRC’s interest in championing RTI/FOI legislation and decrying the “deplorable attack on the Editor of the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna, which occurred while the Commission’s sittings were still in progress” (9.114, pg. 353) is worth the suspension of disbelief to consider seriously. Gnanasundaram Kuganathan may beg to differ. 59 is no age to be beaten with iron bars to near death. And yet, Sri Lanka’s Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella is on record as saying, after the attack, that all he can do is to visit journalists in hospital and take them thambili (king coconut water). The LLRC report calls him and the government to talk less, and do much more. In June this year, a Right to Information Bill presented by the opposition was defeated by a majority of 63 votes in the 225-seat parliament. It gets worse. A month after the defeat of this Bill, it was openly reported in the media that the President had categorically told newspaper editors RTI legislation was, in his opinion, unnecessary. When questioned further by journalists about this untenable position, the President had unsurprisingly insisted that the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, which the government had ‘strengthened’, could for example handle allegations of graft. This is spin Bell Pottinger would be proud of.
Yet far more being concerned, few in Sri Lanka really care about the LLRC’s recommendations over RTI. The heady interest du jour in the LLRC report will soon pass. As M.C.M. Iqbal, a former Secretary of two Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances and Secretary to the Committee of Inquiry into Disappearances Of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka noted in a telling comment online, “Let’s us hope these and the other recommendations of the LLRC do not suffer the same fate as the recommendations of the Commissions on Disappearances Persons and other such Commissions of the past. The Members of those Commissions were equally eminent persons as those of the LLRC and had put a lot of effort in making their recommendations. If only the recommendations had be taken seriously, many of the disappearances and human rights violations that occurred subsequently may not have been committed with impunity”. The report is, as yet, unavailable in Sinhala and Tamil. At over 400 pages, only a handful of citizens will read it in full, in whatever language. Fewer will actually comprehend what’s in it, even if they read it cover to cover. Most of the attention will be focussed on war crimes allegations. Other points made in the report, like on RTI and media freedom post-war, will generate less interest. It is likely that the LLRC’s recommendations are the new hooks for projects and programmes, both in government and civil society. Particularly interesting would be renewed discussion on RTI. However, it is unclear though where the demand for progressive legislation in this regard would come from.
RTI advocacy and activism to date assumes there is a demand, amongst citizens, for information about governance and potential graft. This assumption animates programmes – which admittedly I have myself designed and delivered to provincial journalists – to strengthen calls to demand this information. The assumption needs to be questioned. There is certainly an interest in party politics in Sri Lanka. A poll on the timbre of post-war democracy conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in July 2011 revealed that 61.3% of the respondents said they obtain information about politics through discussions or talk shows on television. More urban respondents (72.3%) said that they get their information through discussions and talk shows on television when compared to the 57.7% of rural respondents who said the same. In rural areas, the word of mouth transmission of information first gleaned through media is an important form of communication. As the same poll revealed, almost 60% of the urban respondents stated that they do not get information about politics from others while almost 60% of rural respondents said that they do. So in sum, mainstream media is the primary channel of information for most in Sri Lanka and in rural areas, though direct consumption drops, people are generally aware of what’s reported in the news. And there’s the rub. Nowhere is there a desire to go beyond the news or to critically appreciate what’s reported. Beyond party politics, there is no real interest in the timbre of governance, and even when people talk about what’s wrong with it, few actually do anything about it. The argument that RTI will somehow transform a social culture thus far disinterested in actively participating in governance is suspect. And without media literacy, civic education or an abiding interest in democratic governance beyond a party vote during elections, RTI does not in fact have many champions in this country, which in turn makes it easy for those in power to filibuster their way out of legislation.
Over the years they’ve been championed by civil society, media freedom and RTI are associated, for better or worse, with certain political parties and institutions. Broad-basing the ideational space to debate both will require serious revision of past programmes. Workshops and toolkits don’t work. Information visualisation can help – for example, with the sectoral visualisation of local government budgets to give citizens an easy to digest grasp of where and how public money is put to use, and by whom. Training programmes for provincial journalists won’t work. Simple SMS based scoring applications to game the service delivery of public institutions can create competitiveness that enhances delivery, and reduces graft. Most everyone likes to give or take bribe. Few can countenance public naming and shaming. Online initiatives like India’s ‘I Paid a Bribe’ done by Janaagraha, a Bangalore based not-for-profit organization, can help pit provinces and cities against one another with citizen-generated bribe indices that uncover the real cost of transactional corruption. The cumulative totals can be quite revealing, and again, the shame and fear of shame can drive reform. RTI legislation, going by what this government has indicated and the President has himself said, is not going to come about any time soon. Legislation can have a powerful trickle down effect, but with the art of the long view, as useful to consider are micro-initiatives to get citizens animated about getting information from public authorities, and logging their experiences.
RTI in Sri Lanka sadly remains just a good idea. Many don’t see any value in it. There is no larger social or political call for it. Even worse, few really feel any need for it. The commissioners of the LLRC suggest it is vital to post-war Sri Lanka. Yet so much of development post-war is taking place on the basis of corrupt practices. Everyone is in the game of lip-service to the regime, no one wants out, or the rules changed to allow more than a privileged few to witness what really goes on. Tellingly, even those outside these concentric, corrupt circles are satisfied with what they see and receive, and care little about how development actually came about, or is sustained. To imagine RTI legislation now, in this context, is difficult. Projected over a longer time however, and there are things civil society can do and say today that can animate a larger public to record what they see and do. Just by simply doing that – recording what they see – corruption, bad service delivery, favouritism, nepotism and bad policies are harder to hide and explain.
The LLRC’s recommendations on RTI are timely. That said, they will in a short time be conveniently forgotten. What will remain is an enduring need to get more creative in generating the desire and demand for information beyond what citizens are currently content consuming.
Published in The Nation on 25 December 2011.