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The Right To Information Act: Finally a reality?

Image: Amnesty

Access to information is a universal human right; despite that it has never been a part of the constitution in Sri Lanka although attempts have been made throughout the last decade.

When President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in January he included the introduction of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in his 100 days programme and according to Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director for Centre for Policy Alternatives, the government has agreed on a final version of the Act and will most likely bring it up in parliament in the coming weeks after the 19 Amendment was passed. Dr. Saravanamuttu describes the RTI Act as arguably the most important legislation in the reform process because “it could change the way people think of themselves as citizens and accordingly how politicians respond to them.”

The struggle for the right to information has lasted for over ten years. The UNF government initiated the first attempt in 2002 led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and supported by many civil society organizations. In 2003 the parliament agreed on the last draft of the Act but by the end of the year the relationship between Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga began to deteriorate. When the Parliament was ready to vote, President Kumaratunga capsized the first attempt to introduce a RTI Act by abolishing the parliament.

In 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power. He was not interested in introducing a RTI Act and the civil society organizations kept a low profile in the years of Rajapaksa-ruling. They feared that the government would use the Act to get goodwill in the international community and not really do anything to enforce it – in other words introduce a pseudo-RTI Act. So from 2005 till January 2015 the development of a RTI act has roughly stood still. Now finally it seems like it will be a reality.

The importance of a Right to Information Act

The RTI Act will force any public authority to make sure that the citizens are enlightened about relevant procedures or decisions that could affect them. Hence it guarantees citizens access to information from all public authorities unless it’s information that can be damaging towards the security of the country.

Journalist, Dilrukshi Handunnetti, considers the Act a keystone in creating an inclusive and open political and public sphere in Sri Lanka. “The RTI Act will open so many doors to the political system,” she explains “As a voter and a citizen you will be able to find out how the political parties are funded and by whom and get thorough information about the political candidates before you decide who you will vote for.”

According to Dr. Saravanamuttu the people need information in order to make intelligent decisions regarding politics and elections: “it’s the old cliché that information is power,” he says and adds: “A government should not hide behind closed doors and be covered in secrecy if it’s a government of the people and for the people,” underpinning the need of transparency in the political system.

Asanga Welikala, a lawyer and one of the contributors to the 2004 RTI draft, says, “The fact that the RTI will be among the fundamental rights and will be treated like that by the Supreme Court will have a huge impact on the sharing and accessibility to information in the future.”

Public information offices 

An important part of the Act is the creation of public information offices all over Sri Lanka. The Act introduces that every public authority has to have an information officer responsible for dealing with public requests for information and a ‘public authority’ is defined in a very wide way; “it covers parliament, ministries, local authorities and private companies that perform public work,” Asanga Welikala explains.

Local offices that are willing to share information will be a big step towards changing the culture of non-openness and non-sharing of information that has been dominating Sri Lanka for decades: “People need to understand that it’s good to share information and that this law serves the individual citizens,” Handunnetti says, but “it will take a long time to change the mind-set of the Sri Lankan people.”

The enactment period 

After the RTI Act has been passed there will be a transition period of 6 months before it becomes operational: “This period is necessary to make the institutional and procedural preparations to implement it,” Dr. Saravanamuttu says and further explains that the government and all officers need to be trained before the Act can be operational.

According to Welikala this timeframe is unrealistically short: “In India it took 5 years before the law became operational, in the UK it took almost 10 years before it was really functioning. Time is needed to completely re-gear the system and the mentality, especially with a government with no culture whatsoever of sharing information and disclosure.” According to Welikala the reality in Sri Lanka will not change over night or within six months after the bill has been passed, “It’s a huge work to implement it, to organize it and put it into system in the practical way.” 

Reaching the people 

A big problem towards the Act is that the right to information has been promoted as a law for journalists and media institutions and not for the country as a whole. Hence the citizens have not been particularly engaged in the RTI Act and are not aware of how much it will mean for their future. “If it’s not treated and used as an empowerment tool of the people it will be a great tragedy,” Dr. Saravanamuttu foresees.

“The right use would come with more ownership, and ownership first comes when there are great understanding of things,” Handunnetti explains. The Indian example of introducing their RTI Act is very important for Sri Lanka, because they succeeded in designing a public campaign that made it a people’s concern and showed people how they could use the law. The politicians, the civil organizations and the press shall focus on reaching the citizens during the enactment period if the Sri Lankan society shall achieve full exploitation of the law.

Within the Act itself there has been taken measures towards reaching people by the establishment of an Information Committee with the purpose of enlightening people about the Act and its possibilities, especially during the six months transition period.

The Information Committee will consist of people well known in public life with different expertise. Welikala calls the committee ‘crucial’ and has argued that the committee itself should have had constitutional status. “They will have a huge role to play in all three languages but the media and civil society has to do their part as well,” he says. According to a draft The Sunday Times published last Sunday the RTI Commission will consist of five persons: one from the Sri Lanka Press Institute, the Organisation of Professional Associations and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, and two other members who will be appointed in consultation with civil society.

Sharing of information

The development in the use of social media in recent years has changed the nature of sharing information worldwide. This also applies for Sri Lanka: the social media is a powerful tool for the people because it creates a direct platform of sharing ideas, experiences and thoughts. “The social media platforms provide another element to the public debate than the established media and contribute to a transparent public sphere and a strengthening in the sharing of information, “says Handunnetti.

Another important tool that has to be used by civil society in order to challenge wrongdoings in the public system is whistleblowing. “I think for far too long people have had the illusion that they are officers of state. Individuals, even though they are public servants, must recognize that they have a personal responsibility to do the right thing as citizens, and if they can’t they have to blow the whistle,” Dr. Saravanamuttu says and emphasizes that a well-institutionalized safeguard system has to be created if a whistleblowing culture shall develop.

The new RTI will also change the conditions for media institutions and journalists. A change that is badly needed according to Handunnetti: She explains that the media has been suppressed during the war and post-war. The pressure has been high and because of a high level of self-censorship and control by the state the culture of sharing information has died and the journalistic quality has suffered. It’s both the responsibility of individual journalists and media institutions to change this: “The promotion of plural unbiased ethical professional media within institutions is so key to promoting professional journalism among individual journalists,” says Handunnetti.

The Act also states that it is the duty of any public body to communicate understandable with citizens of its doings and decisions.

Issues concerning the draft 

Politicians and civil organizations have been working on the introduction of the RTI Act since 2002. The basis for the current Act is the draft that almost came to a vote in parliament in the early 2004, made by the UNF government led by the current Prime Minister, Editors guild, Free Media Movement and Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“We have never had a constitutional process as bad, messy and completely closed as this one,” Welikala says and further notes that to this day it has not been confirmed which version of the draft has been brought up in the Supreme Court and is going to be brought up in parliament. He has been given several different versions of the draft from several different people: “No one really knows what kind of legislation this actually is,” he says.

The human rights organization ‘The Centre for Law and Democracy’ also find problematic issues in the latest draft. They criticize a formulation in the Act which says “Every citizen shall have the right of access to any information as provided for by law,” arguing that the wording suggests that what the provision guarantees is that the right of access is dependent on the rule of law, therefore the RTI will not be a constitutional guarantee, but simply a reaffirmation of the rule of law.

Welikala also has critical comments to this sentence. In the draft from 2004 they deliberately used the word ‘person’ instead of ‘citizen’. “We wanted to make the RTI Act cover all persons, and not just citizens. But in the last draft they have changed ‘persons’ to ‘citizens’, which means that a non-citizen of Sri Lanka will not be able to access information.” This means, among other things, that foreign journalists will have difficulties reporting from Sri Lanka.

The politicians 

There are a lot of obstacles making the RTI Act operational and successful. The major thing is the culture of withholding information that dominates all areas in society: the private sphere, the political sphere and the public.

Dr. Saravanamuttu underpins that there is a lot of sensitive information in Sri Lanka that you need to consider: “There will be things that are very sensitive: allegations of war crimes for example, so people must accept that there will be exceptions.” It will be the court’s job to judge what has and what doesn’t have public interest.

According to Welikala the current government is genuinely interested in introducing and utilizing the Act: “The law has to come into the public consciousness and then it will work for itself and develop.” The approval of the Act will be a big step in the right direction even though it will take time before it will work consummately.