With the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka holding as unconstitutional several clauses of the Right to Information Bill, the government is to study the Apex Court’s determination before proceeding further.
The Court, after hearing four petitions questioning the constitutionality of the Bill, concluded that four clauses of the legislation, which was taken up for the first reading in Parliament on March 24, violated certain Articles of the Constitution. The failure to stipulate the provision on maintenance of the authority and impartiality of the judiciary as a ground for denial of information and the discrepancy in the definition of public authority to cover private educational institutions were among the provisions challenged.
It needs two-thirds majority
If the government wanted to have the Bill to be adopted in the present form, it had to get a two-thirds majority and the approval of people through a referendum. However, the Court suggested a way out for the government to get the parliamentary approval for the proposed law with a simple majority if the Court’s suggestions were incorporated in the text. Recently, Speaker of the Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, informed the House about the decision of the Supreme Court.
On the Court’s findings, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Justice Minister, told The Hindu on Saturday morning that “we have not yet examined the Court’s ruling closely.” To a query whether the government would go by the Court’s advice on the amendments, the Minister replied that “we would look into it.”
Setting up of a Information Commission
The Bill envisages the establishment of a five-member Information Commission, which will monitor the performance and ensure the due compliance by public authorities. It also requires Ministers to provide information on projects, which come under the jurisdiction of the latter, to the public generally and people likely to be affected by the projects, three months prior to the commencement of such projects. The Part II of the Bill, dealing with denial of access to information, cites various grounds including defence and economy.
Before the Bill was tabled in the House in March, the approval of all the nine provincial councils was obtained. Three provincial councils – Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Northern – had also proposed amendments.
Curbs on RTI?
The Court, in its 20-page-long ruling, elaborately dealt with the desirability of imposing restrictions on the right to information on the ground that disclosure would cause “serious prejudice to the economy of Sri Lanka.”
Quoting judgments of the Supreme Court of India and the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka did not agree with the contention of petitioners that the matters pertaining to “economy” did not fall within the permitted restrictions stipulated under the Constitution with regard to the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights. The Court concurred with the interpretation of the government that the term “national security” be interpreted in such a way to safeguard the country’s “vital interests on trade secrets and trade agreements.” It, however, pointed out that there was “no blanket prohibition” in the Bill on all information relating to the trade pacts. (The Hindu)