by Maneshka Borham
As members of the Joint Opposition continue to voice dissent over making Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) hearings on the Easter Sunday bombings open to the public, Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) has stressed that all similar committee hearings should by default be open to both the public and the media. “True accountability in Sri Lanka can only be guaranteed by public scrutiny,” TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere told the Sunday Observer. “TISL believes all such hearings should be made public other than in exceptional cases,” he said.
The PSC was appointed on May 23 to probe and report to Parliament on the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary history, it was decided that the proceedings of the PSC will be aired live in a bid to ensure transparency.
During its first sitting, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis and Defence Secretary General (Rtd) Shantha Kottegoda testified before the Committee. However, opposition MPs backing Opposition Leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa alleged that the decision to allow journalists to be present and air live the proceedings would compromise national intelligence services by releasing sensitive information.
Obeysekere however countered that the level of trust on closed-door hearings do not generate the same level of public trust as those held in the public domain after which the public can hold those liable accountable. “For example, the Commission of Inquiry into the Central Bank Bond issue gained momentum due to the public and the media being given access to the proceedings” he pointed out.
He said open proceedings are an important step in building trust in the parliamentary system in the country. “Most of the important work of Parliament happens within committees, and the public being able to see the policy work happening in Parliament is important” he said.
“While interest has built up due to the issue at hand, this may be an opportunity to introduce reforms on how parliamentary committees work” he said adding that often MPs whose efforts are anchored in committees such as legislative oversight committees never gain public recognition for the contributions made.
“In democracies, it is important that citizens understand the working of such committees,” Obeysekere said, adding that there may be circumstances where information would need to be heard confidentially. “But this must be the exception as opposed to the norm” he pointed out.
Acting Chairman of the PSC Dr Jayampathi Wickramaratne at a press briefing on Friday assured that televising the proceedings has not compromised national security or the security of the intelligence services. According to him the PSC was formed under the principles of Right to Information ensuring the people’s right to know. He said any sensitive information will not be aired and those testifying have been directed to request sittings in camera where necessary.
PSC member, Prof. Ashu Marasinghe said the two officials who testified had been reassured that any matter they were not comfortable discussing in the presence of the media, could be withheld for a later date. Opposition politicians have no right to take away people’s right to know, Prof. Marasinghe said adding that leaders should put the country above party politics.