Freedom of Information now!
Yes, Sri Lanka needs a law that addresses the issue freedom of information. While professional groups are toiling to craft the legal enactments I suspect political party leaders are smirking or better, sighing a deep sigh of relief, safe yet again! A good misdirection! Perhaps it is.
Sharing information about public actions of government is necessary for a robust democracy. What public men and women do has to be known to the citizens for them to make informed judgments, weigh the benefits to their communities and families and to themselves and comment on this pubic conduct. A healthy flow of information is vital to all societies. Market economies depend on and thrive on a large variety of information. What is healthy and what is not depends for whom and on many things. Funeral parlors and crematoria require a healthy flow of dead bodies! But there is a Goldilocks point, not too much and not too little.
How much information do we need?
All information from bug infestations in crops in some hapless nation to airlines that cannot keep to their schedules are grist to the mill and result in adjustments, frenzied phone calls and then some buying and selling. Some of us run away or limp away with the impression that all information is good like all truth, and more the better. Till we look around and find out that there are new armies that have sprung up to interpret the information that we have created and that there are schools of thought on the veracity of the analysis and more reports and conferences and workshops and journals, some of it good and much of it trash that littler the information highway that sometimes experiences gridlock. Then there is the swirling mess of advertisements and messages and banners and tweets that confuse and confound us. Then there are the experts and more experts emerge. And the freedom of information act, it is necessary but what is it about?
Information is good but it is not an unmitigated blessing. The wherewithal to process information does not come easy and all of us will not be so moved to troll information troves for the public good or their own good. Just as much as there are libraries, some read more and some read less and those who read more than others do interpret, comment and criticize what they read. The others form opinions based on the comments and so forth. Information is also like that. Everyone will neither have the time nor the ability to read the masses of information that a government produces.
We hope that the markets that emerge to collect information, to analyze it, broadcast it and are all efficient. But is this a hope like other hopes for the kingdom of heaven on earth? Kind of. There will be more pundits and they will be in the pay of those who wish the information be interpreted this way while others who think the information point to other ways will pay those who will do that and yet more others will, as far as the money will run. Information cannot be costless but to some extent much of it can be a public good. The government can provide the entire body of its enactments, decisions, and treaties to the public. This process has to be created and an Act of Parliament to make it a law. The Act will begin the process but will not guarantee its results or expected outcomes.
Will a FOIA be needed to guarantee Transparency or Accountability?
Much like other enactments that are written and sometimes fixed to walls that do not guarantee that some innocent is bounced off the walls of a police cell because he or she is not forthcoming about something someone else lost, the FOIA too will require diligent oversight. We will need a mechanism or system in place to determine whether the Right to Information is providing information that is needed leading to better outcomes in good governance in the public sector.
However, the spirit of it all is important. The citizens should be able to access information about the actions taken in the public domain for the public good. It should be available to the public to read and examine and discuss. A healthy democracy is likely to be a well informed one, and a well-informed one will need information about the actions of government. This may not mean all information that is possible but it is likely to mean as much information as possible to aid good governance keeping in focus issues of national sovereignty and national security.
Where do political parties fit in with Freedom of Information?
Along with all of this we may also do well to have freedom of information regarding political parties and their doings and un-doings. Why not have the political parities file their constitutions and amendments to it in a place accessible to the public? Why not have political parties file annual audited accounts and annual reports including interests of party members and office bearers in commercial ventures? Why aren’t we free to have this?
Political parties are operating like fiefdoms. They appear to be unaccountable to their own members in some very important details, like money where it has been obtained from and how it is spent.
There are two related issues here that might be of crucial interest to the citizens of Sri Lanka. Both are linked to the vexed issue of abuse of power and authority and corruption and are linked through political parties with the medium of money. None of this is new. But as we develop and demand from the commercial sector, household sector more accountability and transparency, like the issues related to the NGOs, we should also take care to open the black box as if it were of political parties.
Or should we start with campaign finance reform? Where will that begin? And how and what will be the legal architecture that will aid the process towards a better level of governance of the electoral process with regards to expenditures?
We need to think carefully about this. Some will argue persuasively that we should begin with campaign financing reform and leave the issues of transparency and accountability of political parties, about their financial dealing to another time.
I tend to believe that we should discuss both issues since they are connected. Taking one issue, campaign finance may be strategic at this time and might lead to an opening where we can address the larger issue, the internal democracy of political parties. The latter is not an unimportant issue but contains the campaign finance issue within it.
Political parties may hold the view that they do not have to be accountable in the same way a public company or as the government in which they perform should be. If so how would we address issues of corruption and financial malfeasance where members of political parties in collusion with commercial and other interests could foist real costs on the public?
A political party that is neither transparent to its members nor to the public need not be a corrupt and criminally collusive organization. But if some of its members, especially when they come to powerful public office, may act on their own behalf and the political party may not have recourse to bring the situation to right. Cozy relationships between some business interests and the politically powerful may not serve the public good. This may weaken the political party and its internal democracy and accountability.
More information about dealings of political parties to reduce corruption?
Left on their own political parties are unlikely to broach this subject of corruption in their midst or to volunteer any action that leads to greater transparency and accountability of their financial transactions. This issue is of course also related to election campaign finance. We may take a path towards establishing campaign finance legislation that covers local, provincial and national elections and referenda. But, I think it also important to bring in some controls towards greater accountability and transparency of the political parties themselves.
As it is, we have much speculation about the very large sums of money that move to support those who would be our elected representatives. Financial support is provided to get persons and parties elected to office and to keep them in office. The former is a specific concern. Those who receive financial support from businesses, commercial interests or wealthy citizens in order to be elected will be expected to reciprocate in turn by dipping into the public realm, the common wealth. Padded contracts may be provided, special concessions in terms of taxes, levies, duties, special or preferential access to finance or preferential access to markets may be provided.
Some of this may be necessary to build up commercial capacity; someone or some group has to get the contract. If one group gets it another does not and the one that does not might squawk that they were unfairly treated. This goes on all the time in the commercial world when large contracts are involved. Formal protests may be launched and legal redress may be sought delaying the award of contract and of course the work that was to be undertaken. This happens and the presence of voice, protest, is not evidence of wrongdoing or collusion for financial gain by politicians. Access to information by itself will not be adequate to inform the citizen about the intricacies of most large commercial deals. There are oceans of murky affairs hence the phalanxes high paid lawyers helping commercial groups to defend their interests.
The government here, or anywhere is often at a disadvantage to face the massed attack that commercial interests may launch. The medical sector is an example and we are getting glimpses of what can happen when powerful business interests organize themselves to protect their domain against what they fee to be unnecessary government trespass. Again none of this is new or unknown.
Those in the government may from time to time perceive substantial economic advantages for themselves or for people known to them. This occurs in business as well. In the world of stock exchanges and high or low finance insider trading when caught get you a pass to jail. In the world of high or low politics this becomes hard to establish unless there is the established norm of providing greater transparency and accountability of government actions. Collusion is hard to legislate against. People do tend to form cliques, clubs, groups and within those groups they are likely to exchange information, trade, seek to gain some advantage over others not in the group. Information plays a key role and people inevitably trade in information.
Pssst! Do you want to know who is doing whom in? The media trade in information, they stumble over each other to “break” a story, be the first to have brought us the “news” even if it is carefully made up and paid for.
Yes, freedom of information, public information. But also spare a thought to develop the political party system where it is transparent and accountable and its financial accounts; annual reports and constitutions are available to the public.