RTIC order - a paradigm shift in Lanka’s political arena? | Sunday Observer

RTIC order - a paradigm shift in Lanka’s political arena?

RTI in Sri Lanka was formed after a long and arduous gestation period. Though a committee on reformation of the laws on media freedom and freedom of expression recommended the need of drafting an RTI Act in 1995, it took 20 years for the Sri Lankan Parliament to enact it.

The RTI Act was enacted by Parliament on June 23, 2016. Its birth-pangs lasted another seven months, until the public sector was equipped and empowered to suit the transparency culture of the RTI Act. Finally it came into enforcement on February 3, 2017 upholding the citizens’ fundamental right to information. TISL applications

It was February 03, 2017, the very day that the RTI Act came into force, that TISL filed applications for the declaration of assets and liabilities of those who held the two highest political offices, the President and the Prime Minister. In a country where transparency and accountability are almost non-existent among politicians and the government sector, the RTI applications requesting the declaration of assets was to give the propagators of the RTI Act, “an opportunity to prove their own accountability towards transparency.

However, it was only last week that the RTIC issued an order pursuant to the application filed in February 2017.

The delay had been due to the legal debate on the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities. Though applications filed for the declaration of assets both by the President and the PM, as the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law (1 of 1975), does not stipulate the office of the Executive President, under the applicants. The law required a range of political and public officials to submit a declaration of their assets and liabilities to the Office of the President. However, it had inbuilt provisions on privacy and secrecy.

The RTIC order based on the provisions of the RTI Act, has confirmed that law as found in the RTI Act supersedes the secrecy provisions of the declaration of assets and liabilities law, allowing them to be declared in the public domain.

This could be considered a new chapter in the Sri Lankan political context as RTI can now be practically used to empower the decades old Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law of Members of Parliament and other higher officials in the government’s service and to hold them accountable and responsible.

Seemingly righteous

The tool of asset declaration of the elected representatives could be a good way of regaining public trust towards seemingly righteous politicians at a time public trust on all politicians is decaying.

According to the Personal Record and Financial Information fact sheet of ‘the Committee on High Posts of the Parliament of Sri Lanka to examine the suitability of persons nominated / appointed to the state services and state corporations’, in this assets and liabilities disclosure, not just the VIP but all properties under the names of their immediate family, spouse and children are also bound be recorded.

Each and every asset that person and his or her immediate family holds including, Current Accounts, Savings Accounts and Fixed Deposits in banks; property, vehicles, stocks, shares or debentures, business ventures, safe deposit vaults, jewellery, precious stones, gold or silver have to be reported.

However, it is imperative that the country’s archaic law on declaration of assets and liabilities be amended soon. This was also pointed out by the Director General (DG) of The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) recently.

Speaking to the media recently, Sarath Jayamanne, DG of CIABOC said that the CIABOC had held initial discussions to modernise the current Assets and Liabilities Act. He also said that the Election Commission also has forwarded a suggestion that all candidates at an election must submit their assets declaration along with their nomination papers, a bold decision implemented in India.

Further to those amendments, the law is to be revised, to increase the fine for those who do not declare their assets and liabilities from Rs. 1,000/- to Rs. 100,000/- and to maximise the term of imprisonment to up to two years.

This is a win for everyone - a win for the public, a win of RTI, and most importantly a big win for honest politicians, who would be happy to see their assets disclosed in the public domain, said the Executive Director of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) Asoka Obeysekere, describing the landmark order of the Right to Information Commission (RTIC).

The ruling has the potential to make a paradigm shift in the Sri Lankan political arena.