Kudos to Court of Appeal on RTI ruling on MPs

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Nearly five years after journalist Chamara Sampath filed an RTI application seeking information on Members of Parliament (MP)s who have submitted their asset declarations, the Court of Appeal, in a landmark judgement on Tuesday directed Parliament to release the relevant details to the applicant. 

The application was first submitted in June, 2018 to the relevant officials in Parliament who turned it down following which the applicant made an appeal to the RTI Commission. Though the Commission directed the Secretary General of Parliament to release the information following its inquiry, he refused and filed an appeal before the CA holding as his main contention that it was the Speaker who had ‘possession, custody and control’ of the said information and that it was wrong to hold that the Parliament had institutional possession, custody and control of the said information.

The Court however held that “as a public authority, it is the Sri Lanka Parliament that is in possession, custody or control of the information requested as envisaged in section 3 (1) of the RTI Act”.

MPs are required to submit their assets and liabilities to Parliament annually under the provisions of the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law No. 1 of 1975, amended by Act No. 74 of 1988. Although the law requires elected representatives, members of the judiciary and various categories of public officials to declare assets, its clauses requiring secrecy from those with access to such information means it’s another law that gets flaunted around to show politicians are open to scrutiny when in fact it is only for show.

This however might be about to change as the CA recognised in its Order that the Right to Information, a right which was subsequently recognised as a Fundamental Right under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, is superior to the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act. The Court also held that the intention of RTI legislation is to give effect more robustly to the provision of the Constitution, “by fostering a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities and institutions by giving effect to the right of access to information in combating corruption and promoting accountability and good governance.

The push to have information on MPs’ assets has been an ongoing one and there have been instances where former Speakers have agreed to release the required information on an individual basis. However, Parliament has been slow in agreeing to release information taking cover behind different regulations making it notoriously difficult to access information the institution holds.

Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) has been in the forefront in recent years to encourage MPs to make the relevant information public on their own and so far, 16 MPs from different parties have done so. At a time when public trust and confidence in elected officials is at an all-time low, it would be best if the MPs agree to divulge the information without coercion from the judiciary or another source.

After all, why should elected representatives, who use all the tricks in the book to lure voters to get elected, be afraid to disclose what they own, i.e. unless their wealth has been acquired through illegal and fraudulent means.

That said, the Court Order augurs well for transparency and accountability that the public demands and is entitled to expect from all elected representatives. But it is just one step in a long process that would make politicians truly accountable to the public. For example, the Code of Conduct adopted by Parliament in April, 2018 which makes provision for MPs to declare business financial interests, needs to be fully and transparently enforced. 

Courtesy Daily Mirror

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Disclaimer: Kudos to Court of Appeal on RTI ruling on MPs - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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