RTI, the government opens itself to the public: Media, civil society, should educate masses | Sunday Observer

RTI, the government opens itself to the public: Media, civil society, should educate masses

In exactly a weeks’ time the RTI would kick in. Right to Information (RTI) was a mission lobbied for and by, many activists, some within the government ranks, as well as people who were vociferous on media freedom and making information available to the general public. To reap its benefit people must utilize this piece of legislature, and for that they need to be aware and knowledgeable of what they are privy to, and to what extent and most importantly, how to make use of it.

Right to Information is a right conferred and upheld by the Constitution of the country. Article 14A of the Constitution pronounces: “Every citizen shall have the right of access to any information as provided for by law, being information that is required for the exercise or protection of a citizen’s right held by….. (Government authorities/departments)”

Despite this right being introduced and penned down under article 14A of the Constitution, the mechanism to get the information comes now. As the Act quite rightly identifies, the object of introducing the law is mainly to “foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities by giving effect to the right of access to information and thereby promote a society in which the people of Sri Lanka would be able to more fully participate in public life through combating corruption and promoting accountability and good governance.”

However, to effectively utilize this law and the opportunities provided, people’s awareness and participation is a must. Whether the people are aware or have been educated on it, is a moot point.

How it works

A person, any person who wishes to obtain information “which is in the possession, custody or within the control of a public authority,” may make a request for such information. However, several limitations have been placed under section 5 of the Act. Information which is, private in nature, leads to personal medical records, undermines national security or territorial integrity, would prejudice the country’s economy, pertains to international trade and agreements, are some of the limitations set out in the Act.

Either a formal requisition can be filled and submitted requesting information, or alternatively a letter addressed to the relevant government authority would suffice to be considered as a formal information request.

When the Sunday Observer spoke to several Pradeshiya Sabah officers, we were informed that they were allowed to draw a requisite form.

The Act takes a further step in accommodating persons who are not able to write, in that, they can orally make an application to the relevant information officer who is vested with the duty to take note of such information and draw up a formal request and proceed with it.

Once the request is obtained by the information officer, he, within fourteen (14) working days must revert and say whether the information requested can be provided or whether the request is to be rejected under the limitations in the Act. If it was decided to provide the information, within a period of another 14 working days the relevant information should be released. In the event the information requested is of large scale or needs time to obtain, the officer may take further time, but the period may not exceed 21 days.

Any person upon making an application, is not provided with such information within the stipulated period and is aggrieved, may appeal to the designated officer within 14 days. An appeal is possible from this point to the Commission. Any person aggrieved by the decision of the designated officer may appeal to the Commission within two months. Thereafter, further appeals are possible to the Court of Appeal as well as the Supreme Court.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Director General of the Information Department Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya said, the Commission is a capable body with immense powers to serve the people. “The instances of applications going to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court are very seldom. It is so in other countries as well. The Commission is quite efficient and powerful to handle matters that come before it,” he said.

How much awareness is needed?

The Sunday Observer randomly called on several public bodies to discover their response to the Right to Information. One official at a local government (Pradeshiya Sabah) office had no idea about it. When asked whether they were given any training with regard to the RTI some admitted that they were given the Act to read and summarized it for them.

Another official when asked the time period needed to respond to a request, she very confidently said, there was no such time stipulation.

“About 70 percent have been trained to handle queries made under RTI applications. Bangladesh took about 8 years to completely train their personnel. We have done much at national and provincial levels. However, training has not been conducted at local government levels, yet.” Dr. Kalansooriya said.

Executive Director of CaFFE, Keerthi Tennakoon was of the view that although public awareness on the matter has not been satisfactory it should be a gradual climb, as in any other law too, it will take time to settle with the people.

“We have seen that some advocacy has been done on this. But whenever you introduce a piece of new legislature, its incorporation is gradual. With time, people would get knowledgeable and utilize the mechanism. It is paramount that we inject this into different levels of society; from schools to the grassroots, as well as the youth in the country. But it would take time,” he elaborated.

The convener of Free Media Movement, Seetha Rajanee is of the view that sufficient attempts have not been made to increase public awareness.

“In my opinion the masses are not educated on the matter sufficiently. It is the civil society that needs to take the propaganda forward. But that enthusiasm is not seen. In schools, from Grade 9 the subject of journalism has been introduced.

This could be used as the medium to educate children on the matter. Even the grama sevaka can educate the public. He is more suitable, given the fact he has direct contact with the people and people go to him for various requirements. The masses should be made aware on a large scale, and there seems to be no such movement, so far,” Seetha Rajanee said.

According to Dr. Kalansooriya it is not the government that should make public awareness.

“With regard to awareness by the general public who are the direct beneficiary, it is still not in a satisfactory level. More work is needed in this area.

The government can’t be expected to make awareness. Government can be held to provide information. Advocacy should be done by the media and other civil society groups. It is the nature of the government to hide information. But by introducing the RTI the government opens itself to the public.

It is up to the public to use this opportunity. As a government, we can’t sensitize the people to ask for information. Sensitizing the masses should be done by the civil society and media; to encourage people to challenge the government because it is a way of challenging the government. Governments can only provide the opportunity,” he said.

Initially, the numbers would be at its lowest. People who are affected and need information will come forth and ask for it. Not everyone will make applications. It will take time for people to understand the scope and what can be achieved. But, with time the true spirit of the law will surface and people will benefit from it,” Dr. Kalansooriya said.