Film star turned ‘one shot’ politician Ranjan Ramanayake has rocked the political, legal and law enforcement establishments with the release of dozens of audio recordings following his arrest, followed by many exposures during his breath-taking address in the Parliament. His outright revelations have posed a major headache not only to the government in power but a big embarrassment to the UNP leadership, fighting presently for their own political lives. The most number of recordings are with the former Director of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), Shani Abeysekera where many cases of political significance were discussed; and also with many of those in judiciary positions. His actions in recording his telephone conversations, obviously without the consent of the other party, as well as many apparent interference in the duties of police officers and judicial officers both on his part and those implicated in his revelations, have created disgust among the general public regarding the extent of corruption and dishonesty of those in authority at political and institutional levels of the government, as well as having drawn condemnation too. Needless to say, it has significantly undermined the remaining confidence the public has had in the political establishment, Police and the judiciary. What a debacle!
The audio clips revealed many recordings of conversations he had with parties at various levels. As some of these leaks indicate, if a small fry of the former Yahapalanaya regime like Ranjan has been attempting to influence judges and the Police and/ or interfere with the process; question arises in the public mind, what those of the top Yahapalanaya hierarchy would/ could have done in such regard in the process of justice dispensation. However, his address in the Parliament also revealed that he also has in his possession many other audio/video recordings too, regarding such interference in the dispensation of justice even by those at the highest echelons of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government too, as well as details about drug barons and crime ring leaders within and without Parliament. Ranjan says he did not release them to the media; rather he accuses the Police of such wrong doing which if true is serious as well. He also says some of those audios clips are doctored as well. Thus, this Ranjan-gate has already opened a can of worms and a Pandora’s box, forcing many in the political and law enforcement/judicial levels to have nightmares and sleepless nights. The salutary effect amid the grim picture is that the people have seen the real picture of what transpires in the echelons of power, justice and law enforcement. This calls for a total clean up in all aspects of governance and also create a credible political culture.
This type of revelations in such blatant and open form, appears to be the first of its kind; which could be termed as a Sri Lankan version of a ‘Wiki-leak’. Since 2006, whistleblower website WikiLeaks initiated by Julian Assange has published a mass of information we would otherwise not have known. The sheer scope and significance of the revelations is shocking. Among them are great abuses of power, corruption, lies and war crimes. For example, the leaks have exposed dubious procedures at Guantanamo Bay and detailed meticulously the Iraq War’s unprecedented civilian death-toll. They have highlighted the dumping of toxic waste in Africa as well as revealed America’s clandestine military actions in Yemen and Pakistan, among many others.
Yet there are still some who insist WikiLeaks has “told us nothing new”. Many leaks however revealed illustrates nothing could be further from the truth. It’s unsurprising that political leaders would want to convince people that the true criminals are those who expose acts of high-level political corruption and criminality, rather than those who perpetrate them. Every political leader would love for that self-serving piety to take hold. But what’s startling is how many citizens and, especially, “journalists” now vehemently believe that as well.
It is seen that Lakehouse newspapers and Hiru/Derana TV stations as usual have slavishly started blaming both Ranjan for his irresponsible actions and also pointing fingers at the Yahaplana government only; forgetting the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa government too were equally guilty if not more. Both sides are rotten to the core. Thus, the public should be wary of the official versions throttled out by the government linked media as well in the social media blaming one side of the political continuum. It is interesting to note that some time back, both Nagananada and Ms Fernando duo became whistle blowers exposing many acts of wrongdoings within the judicial system and the BASL. It is a shameful case of rather the whole political culture and the attendant institutions which are expected to uphold the process of justice and law enforcement, stinking to high heavens. There are many skeletons in the cupboard and scandals kept hidden, thanks to secrecy laws and a corrupt system. This dire situation calls for an open public discussion about the prevailing cess-pits polluting the temples of governance and justice dispensation without any restrictions on public debate.
Many revelations exposing political and governmental corrupt deals and decisions particularly in the West, did not result from the transparency of the governments involved. They did not result from the work of intrepid journalists working for mainstream newspapers either. They resulted from WikiLeaks. Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the most significant leak in Pentagon history – the 1971 Pentagon Papers – spoke admiringly about how important the WikiLeaks documents were. In responding to a question about WikiLeaks and the power of “raw information in a democracy”, Daniel Ellsberg said: ‘I still put my hopes in it, and in democracy – our democracy. A democracy requires this information. Unauthorized disclosures are the lifeblood of a republic. That remains true. We can’t rely only on the authorized handouts from the government any more now than we could under [British King] George III’
Ranjan Ramanayake revelations and exposures brings into focus many priorities for the public. Firstly, the imperative need to up their game in public activism. Secondly, to take the campaign seriously, to clean up the stinking political and law enforcement/ judicial stables. Thirdly, lobby and campaign for systems in place to make the rulers and those agencies dispensing justice and fair play held to account without allowing them to hide behind secret screens. Fourthly, to raise awareness among the people not to vote for corrupt politicians and also to highlight public corruption without fear to bring the alleged offenders to justice.
The culture of secrecy that holds the political and public service establishment in an iron grip is atrocious. Much of Sri Lanka’s decision making processes are shrouded in secrecy and civil society and the media have for long campaigned for a law on the right to information. Crucial decisions that impact on public life are made behind closed doors and public officers are reluctant to share information on these decisions or the basis for these decisions. Sri Lanka’s political culture has long been to deny information. Its transformation to a new information ethos will be painful. Moreover, the country has a long and sad tradition of theoretically excellent laws that have not been implemented with political vigour.
Thus, while the Sri Lankan State maintains a culture of secrecy cemented through legislation like the Official Secrets Act, the RTI Act, operationalised in early 2017, is now used by citizens, journalists and civil society to raise vital questions around transparency, accountability and due process. However, two+ years since its operationalisation, has RTI legislation succeeded in combating and contesting the culture of secrecy that prevails? Sadly, the answer is NO although there are some positive developments. It is to be hoped that the RTI Act, will not fall into that same dispiriting category as in the past. Collective political will must be demonstrated in practically implementing the Act, but Sri Lankans, familiar with tales of woe rather than positive advances, may justly be proud of it.
Some legal regimes are comprehensive and extend the right to information held by national and provincial legislatures and the courts. There is little to suggest that the functions that legislatures and courts perform should exclude them from the ambit of a right to information regime. Both institutions perform public functions and greater transparency on the part of both these institutions is likely to enhance public confidence in their work. International standards suggest that both these institutions should be covered by right to information regimes.
Most laws that deepen democracy and enhance rights require constant vigilance and activism on the part of the public. A right to information regime will not work unless the public demand information and make use of the processes that are part of the legal regime. This would also entail building public awareness, training the public sector, designing effective methods of information storage, digitization and retrieval, and the strengthening of independent Information Commissions. Governance should be seen as a collaborative effort between the institutions of the state and the public. Right to information regimes strengthen collaboration processes between the state and the public. A model of governance that is founded on a principle of collaboration and partnership is likely to be sustainable and widely acceptable. It will empower both the governed and the governors.
Transparency should be the norm, and secrecy the exception. Public access to information and creating spaces for citizen participation in decision making processes at all levels of government are two major pillars of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a worldwide movement which requires the governments to prepare a two-year action plan for promoting open government. Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia that has joined the OGP. RTI law is not an end in and of itself, rather it is a catalyst to achieving good governance and transparency. For Sri Lanka, what will be required is a paradigm shift; from a culture of secrecy within the civil service and government bureaucracy, still an issue in Sri Lanka, to one of openness. This paradigm shift will be critical to the implementation of the RTI Act in full force.
The shocking revelations and the problems highlighted in Ranjan-gate are not just random cases; rather they appear to be systemic. Whether MCC, or SOFA, Hambantota or Sanghrila deals are all shrouded in secrecy and public appears to be getting used to giving the rogue rulers a free hand. These shroud of secrecy that hampers oversight and enables systematic corruption are harmful to a democratic process and could be lifted only by public activism and a responsible media. The bigger victim is the public confidence in the process of justice and the rule of law . It is clearly public duty to take these revelations seriously and act without any delay to hold the government and its agencies to account without allowing the government in power and its’ slavish media to take them on a ride as they usually do. Public spirited civic bodies and Sri Lankan chapter of TI should join hands to get more information under RTI to initiate a comprehensive round of inquiry into these Ranjan-gate exposures and bring those offenders and corrupt politicos and officials to justice. These exposures should not be allowed to fade away. Nothing short of a complete overhaul of the country’s political culture and law enforcement/ justice system would bring back the public trust in the government and its’ associated agencies. The radical reform of the regulatory framework for public life is an important step in re-establishing the public esteem of political life.