Sri Lanka RTI law, third best out of 110 countries : Hang on to it and put it to use | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka RTI law, third best out of 110 countries : Hang on to it and put it to use

Although it is still in its infancy, the civil society and the general public have begun to have apprehensions about the RTI law, a highly anticipated and much hyped piece of legislation expected to empower people and promote good governance.

The media outlets highlighted how ill prepared the public offices were to cater to the RTI demands, not just those in the lower strata but those at the topmost level as well. The Media Ministry indeed warned of initial hiccups that might crop up due to lack of awareness, but it seems, the establishment is in the process of launching a multi thronged war against the RTI .. to discourage the masses from taking full advantage of their newly gained right.

However, Nalaka Gunawardene, Media Personality, at a public lecture recently disagreed. He said, people must have faith and be optimistic. “There can be initial confusions and lack of convincing progress but we must hang on to it and learn to put it to use, “ he emphasized.

Calling for people’s engagement with the new law he said, at this initial stage people must aspire to learn what this piece of legislation is, and how it can be a weapon in their lives, before trying to whip up anti RTI sentiments and cause it a stillbirth. In his opinion, the biggest challenge will be the initial adaptation to the law from all segments of society, public officials, the masses, the media, etc. Gunawardena said, on the RTI supply side,which is the state, they have seen good progress. The laws are being amended and the administrative changes now taking place. ‘But, as for the perceptions and attitudes there is a long way to go.’

He said, any critical comments against the RTI law introduced by the present Unity government should come after at least three months. It must be given time to show progress on their part and to reveal how open they are to accommodate people’s RTI demands. Three months is enough time to clear the coast.

On February 3, 2017 Sri Lanka joined the 110 countries that boast of Right to Information laws. Although the country’s constitution upheld freedom of expression under Article 14 A (1) as a fundamental right, with the Supreme Court recognizing people’s right to information in certain instances, this was the first time people of the country was given full legal backing to elicit information from public offices. The law covers Ministries and all state agencies including schools and education offices. Sri Lanka’s RTI law has been categorized as the 3rd best RTI law out of 110 countries, by the Centre for Law and Democracy. Only, Mexico and Serbia are ahead of us. In India, the Supreme Court upheld the right to information in 1975 and it was enacted in states in 1997. The RTI became fully operational at national level in 2005.

According to the Firstpost, the RTI Act has been used to fight corruption and exposed deep-rooted graft in India. In 2008, the RTI applications filed by activists Yogacharya Anandji and Simpreet Singh exposed the infamous ‘Adarsh Housing Society scam’, which eventually led to the resignation of the then Maharashtra Chief Minister, Ashok Chavan.

“RTI law is a key, it is not enough just to hold this key in your hand, nor would it be enough to open the door with it, you must have an idea what to do once the door is opened,” Gunawardena said. He said, we must follow the examples from our closest neighbours in South Asia. Senior Journalist and Convenor of National Media Forum, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema at the discussion said, RTI will be a real challenge in Sri Lanka, where even parliamentary members and supreme bodies, e.g. where the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) is compelled to engage in rough battles to elicit information, especially, about powerful Ministers and individuals.

But, she said, the people and media have the power to overcome these challenges and help fine tune the RTI law in the country. The discussion was organized by the National Media Forum.

The law is more commonly used by the Indians to learn about state welfare assistance and citizenship issues, although certain cases get sensational and wide coverage, such as, a scam where government officials channelled some 744 crore meant for social welfare projects for Dalits, to the Commonwealth Games in 2005, etc A senior officer at the Information Department said, the highest number of RTI inquiries here in Sri Lanka, so far, have been received by the District Secretaries on land issues. Under the new law the information officers are required to submit the details sought by an individual within 21 days. If the required information is of vital importance (or life threatening) the details can be obtained within 48 hours. Director, Legal Research Unit and Senior Lecturer, Colombo Law Faculty, A.Sarveswaran, on the implementation stage obstacles said, although Sri Lanka boasts of one of the best legislations in the world, some of the provisions in this so called best RTI law may stand in the way against fulfilling its own objectives.

“When it comes to the implementation part, I am not sure if we had been too ambitious in incorporating various provisions, making it one of the best laws in the world. The implementation of the Act vitally depends on human resources, financial resources and also electronic facilities, etc.” We need to have a competent staff at all levels. The Competent Authority may be a skillful person, but if the supporting staff is not so competent, he may not be able to do a proper job, he said, referring to the ‘21 days report back’ requirement.

He said, another grey area is the Establishment Code. ‘Some provision in the Establishment Code is not compatible, so we may have to change the Establishment Code.’ In addition, there are clauses that need clarity. For instance,’the Information officer can do things in ‘good faith’. This ‘good faith’ can have various interpretations.

As a whole, the RTI is a piece of legislation that is vital to promote good governance, as much as rule of law and participation, but during the enforcement process there will be many obstacles. Hence, commitment at all level is crucial. He said, the same fate which befell the Official Languages Policy due to lack of commitment and lack of resources, should not be allowed to befall the RTI law. 

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