Hiding the Right to Information

I took the effort to measure it.

On the day after the the Right to Information bill was presented in Parliament, a leading daily newspaper devoted eight times more coverage to a soft drink ad on its front page than covering this historic development. A ‘grand sale’ of a leading home department store took up ten times more space. The birthday celebrations of the PM covered six times more space. The story of a Minister’s 500,000 rupee worth gem that was lost and found took up three times more space.  The comparisons continue to be mind-boggling. The news story on RTI featured just three lines. In contrast, the front page lead of a Minister’s lost gem stone was twice as long.

One is forced to ask if Sri Lanka’s mainstream media is willing and able to report in the public’s interest, or is governed by Editorial decisions hostage to keeping advertisers and political paymasters happy. The problem is not just with mainstream print. It extends to SMS news services as well. Recently, I visualised hundreds of updates sent to my mobile, from October 2015 to March this year, by a leading SMS ‘news’ provider I had subscribed to. The top 50 terms used most frequently over six months is quite revealing. The updates are extremely Colombo centric – vital updates from other districts, provinces or cities are very much on the margins, at best, of this provider’s news agenda. Updates around various MPs and arrests dominate the news agenda. No other sport comes close to cricket – where high profile matches get, sometimes, updates around key overs and not just the match result at the end. The names of tournaments to the countries we play against come out strongly in the data drive visualisation. Linked to the focus on politicians, President Sirisena wins over PM Wickremesinghe in terms of mentions, and by a long shot. This could be because media, especially from 2005 – early January 2015, was almost entirely focussed on the Executive’s actions and statements. The legacy of this is that even with the 19th Amendment, the media continue to focus on the office of the Executive, without recognising the powers of the PM to shape our national discourse and agenda. Of course, it could also be the result of our PM, and indeed, his government, being so atrocious with media relations. What’s particularly revealing is the extent to which the Rajapaksas still feature in, at least this SMS provider’s news agenda. Mahinda and his family may be out of power, but they still centre and forward in news coverage.

The silences are damning. There is no rights based focus on the news agenda – those displaced, disappeared, landless and continue to be at risk of violence, don’t even remotely feature on the news agenda. If you looked at the past six months, coverage of the Public Representations Commission (PRC) and the whole process of constitution building remains marginal, at best. The Right to Information (RTI) is legislation that has been well over a decade in the making, and absolutely fundamental to an empowered citizenry being able to hold government accountable. The importance of RTI can be judged by its greatest opponents – the former government. In 2011, the President at the time had told a group of Editors that RTI wasn’t needed in Sri Lanka as he would answer any questions they might have. In July 2012, the then Secretary to the Ministry of Media and Information said that that RTI risked national security, and hence would not be introduced. As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted at the time, “almost always, when a government has something to hide, it says access to information will threaten national security – even though national security issues are exempt from disclosure in all nations’ right to information laws.”

After well over a decade of agitation and multiple attempts to introduce to Parliament, an RTI Bill that isn’t perfect but is the strongest we’ve had was presented to Parliament, and is expected to become law around May or June. The mainstream media’s response is to feature Avurudu sales, birthday celebrations, missing gemstones and soft drinks. Not a single Editorial in any leading English newspaper covered the tabling of the Bill in Parliament. If the media doesn’t set the agenda, it is unlikely the public will be animated around, much less actually use, RTI legislation to its fullest. Even a cursory glance at India’s or Bangladesh’s RTI regimes suggest that the introduction of the Bill is the first step of a much longer road. Yet in those countries, the media promoted the use of RTI, and not just episodically. An agenda set by advertisers, a media owned by partisan political interest and journalists who don’t value the importance of RTI in their work suggest that even with the passing of the Bill in Parliament in around two months, enabling legislation or greater accountability in theory, is no guarantee in practice.

This can be changed by championing RTI through different vectors. Getting the people to agitate for, understand, and go on to use RTI provisions can, by frustrating and annoying government agencies unused to scrutiny on a sustained basis, make them fear the sunlight of questions. Government is going to fear RTI, and there is no denying this, but not just for the obvious reasons. Grossly under-appreciated in the implementation of RTI will be the training and staffing of information officers, and the change management at all levels across the whole of government that needs to take place. All this takes money. Sri Lanka is in dire economic straits. RTI will add a burden to a fragile first term government it can ill afford, and measures must be taken to match what will be a rising tide of public expectations and demands with the ability of government to respond. All this can be fuelled by civic media, but ultimately, it’s mainstream media that will reach the most amount of people. From TV stations to spots on radio, from editorials to op-eds, from ads in the public interest to creative campaigns, from RTI drives to innovative apps, from using telcos and their reach to revamping an ageing Postal Department to promote RTI applications by offering free postage, or pre-printed forms – there are endless opportunities to really give life to legislation so many, in the face of the greatest adversity, have championed.

Birthdays, Avurudu sales, gem stones and soft drinks are important for a few. RTI impacts every single person in Sri Lanka – our children, parents, relatives, neighbours, colleagues, friends and rivals even. The simple mathematics of it, one hopes, will compel mainstream media as well as government to take RTI seriously.

We all deserve it.

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First published in The Sunday Island, on 27th March 2016.

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