Fears that Sri Lanka’s right to information law may block economic data

COLOMBO (EconomyNext) – A proposed right to information law has proposed the blocking of information that ‘could seriously harm the economy’ an excuse the rulers and state workers did not specifically previously have to withhold economic data.

The draft right to information draft law that was passed by the cabinet and has included as many as 11 provisions where rulers and state workers could find refuge and deny information to the ruled.

 

Senaratne told reporters that when he had asked, Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe had assured him that views of media organizations had been taken into consideration before the proposal was drafted.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said under the proposed law anyone could appeal to the commission that will be set up to make determinations when information is denied to the public.

But there are fears that agencies such as the Treasury where transparency is low, and agencies such as the Central Bank which has in the past disclosed more data, faster, could hide behind the provision to withhold even more data than they do now.

In the case of economic data, there are fears that the interpretation of what data could ‘seriously harm’ the economy could be used to deny even information that is currently available to the public.

Some of the information that are currently routinely disseminated could be argued to ‘seriously harm’ the economy, by any public official trying to cover their tracks, analysts say.

A case in point is foreign reserves.

When the state mismanages the money supply and loosens policy, creating excess demand, it will spill over to the balance of payments expand the trade deficit, and generate foreign reserve losses and ultimately domestic inflation as well.

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Disclosing such data, can be easily be argued to harm the national economy, critics fear. In the past few years, critical economic data, including central bank forex intervention data had been delayed.

Though disclosure of such data can be held to damage the economy, especially because it can panic investors, releasing such data is essential to put pressure on the rulers and central bank to adopt prudent policy and help ordinary unarmed people to protect their property.

Delaying so called ‘damaging information’ allows the rulers and bureaucrats to continue with bad policy which damage the welfare of the people, requiring corrective measures that can cause even more harm to the people.

In Sri Lanka minutes of monetary board meeting are still not published.

The recent Treasury bond scam and allegations of favours given in the past has shown the need for minutes of public debt decisions as well as allocation sheets also be published, analysts say. The cut-off rate is also not published in Sri Lanka.

The proposed law also has a clause to withhold information that could become a contempt of court or breach of parliamentary privilege.

In Britain parliament debates were held in secret and it was a breach of parliamentary privilege to publish debates.

The secretiveness started to break down especially after 1771, when John Millar, a printer who published debates was released by the Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby.

Though Crosby was called before parliament and ‘remanded’ in the Tower of London, several judges refused to hear his case amid public protests and he was eventually released, helping end the secrecy of the elected ruling class.

William Cobbett and Thomas Hansard who later began publishing parliamentary debates were also imprisoned by the then British government on a different charge.

The transparency of the state and rulers gradually evolved in Western Europe as hereditary ruler’s supremacy and even deadlier parliamentary supremacy gradually gave way to the sovereignty and supremacy of the individual, expanding freedoms during the 19th century in particular.

Freedom advocates say there should be guarantees in the RIT law to ensure that, notwithstanding anything in the law, it cannot rollback any existing information freedoms.

The problem with codification of any law is that it can prevent the gradual evolution of a better law that enhances the freedom of citizens.

Critics say this is particularly dangerous in a country where constitutions have not been instruments that restrained the rulers but have done the exact opposite.

Sri Lanka is also still a country where tax spending rulers and state workers routinely talk of a ‘freedom of the wild ass’ of unarmed citizens who pay their salaries.

 

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