Right to Information should be a step towards Open Government

Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) held a Public Forum on the Right to Information in Colombo on 17 November 2015. I was one of three panelists, along with Wijayananda Jayaweera and Gamini Viyangoda. The panel was moderated by TISL’s Shan Wijetunge.

RTI Public Forum on 17 Nov 2015
RTI Public Forum on 17 Nov 2015

The meeting was conducted in Sinhala. After the event, a journalist from an English language newspaper asked for a summary of my remarks in English, so I wrote this up.

L to R - Wijayananda Jayaweera, Gamini Viyangoda, Nalaka Gunawardene, Shan Wijetunge. At Right to Information public forum on 17 Nov 2015 in Colombo. Photo by Sampath Samarakoon
L to R – Wijayananda Jayaweera, Gamini Viyangoda, Nalaka Gunawardene, Shan Wijetunge. At Right to Information public forum on 17 Nov 2015 in Colombo. Photo by Sampath Samarakoon

Summary of remarks made at Right to Information Public Forum held in Colombo on 17 Nov 2015

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Science writer, columnist and new media researcher

After many years of advocacy by civil society groups and journalists, Sri Lanka is set to soon adopt a law guaranteeing citizens’ Right to Information (RTI, also known as freedom of information laws in some countries). With that, we will join over 100 other countries that have introduced such progressive laws.

The first step is already taken. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in Parliament in April 2015, made the right to information a fundamental right.

The Right to Information Act is meant to institutionalize the arrangement – i.e. put in place the administrative arrangement where a citizen can seek and receive public information.

Some have been critical of the current draft of the RTI Bill as it falls short of the ideal. But in my view, adopting even an imperfect RTI law would be progress.

But we need to see the law’s adoption as only the beginning of a long journey. Proper implementation will require adequate political will, administrative support and sufficient public funds. We would also need sustained monitoring by civil society groups and media to guard against the whole process becoming mired in too much red tape.

RTI signifies unleashing a new potential, and a major change in status quo. First, we need to shake off a long historical legacy of governments not being open or accountable to citizens.

For over 2,000 years of monarchy, over 400 years of colonial rule and 67 years of self-rule since independence, all our governments have restricted public information – even mundane ones unrelated to any security or sensitive issues.

Thus, the ‘default setting’ in most government agencies seems to be to deny and restrict information. When this finally changes, both public servants and citizens will need to adjust.

Information custodians can no longer release selectively, or demand petty bribes for doing so. Citizens, on their part, must find purpose and focus in information they can demand and receive. RTI is not a mere political slogan.

To draw an analogy from water management, opening sluice gates of a water reservoir can benefit only if the downstream systems are in place and the users are ready. With both water and information, recipients need to know how to make the best use of what comes through.

As long-standing champions of RTI, Lankan media and civil society must now switch roles. While benefiting from RTI themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere of public life. They can show, inspire and equip other citizens how best to make use of it.

However, RTI is not just a piece of law or changing how governments share public information. At its most basic, RTI is a collective state of mind. With its adoption, a society can start moving along a more open, informed and inquisitive pathway.

Better management of public information – which covers its proper gathering, storing, analysing and disseminating – should come into sharper focus with RTI.

In a related development, Sri Lanka has just joined an international, multilateral initiative called the Open Government Partnership (OGP). It is the first country in South Asia to do so.

OGP is a global effort “to make governments better”. It aims to secure firm commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. OGP was launched in September 2011, and since then, the partnership has grown to 69 countries representing over a third of the world’s population.

To join OGP, a country must meet minimum eligibility criteria. These cover the timely publication of essential budget documents forms the basic building blocks of budget accountability; RTI guaranteed by law; rules that require public disclosure of income and assets for elected and senior public officials; and openness to citizen participation and engagement in policymaking and governance, including basic protections for civil liberties.

With its impending RTI law, Sri Lanka became eligible to join OGP. Its membership was confirmed at the recent OGP Conference held in Mexico City in late October 2015, where Sri Lanka endorsed the Open Government Declaration committing “to foster a global culture of open government that empowers and delivers for citizens, and advances the ideals of open and participatory 21st century government.”

Sri Lanka was represented at this event by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Harsha de Silva, and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States Prasad Kariyawasam. (Embassy press release: http://slembassyusa.org/embassy_press_releases/sri-lanka-joins-the-open-government-partnership/)

In his speech in Mexico City, Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said: “Our people have proven that citizens will and should be at the heart of the destiny of any country. Importantly, the events this year reaffirm the resilience of our democracy and make it apparent that it is the people that demand an ‘open government’ for my country.”

Now the Yahapalana Government must walk this lofty talk.

OGP member countries are required to prepare a National Action Plan (NAP) which should be done collaboratively by the government and civil society. Such plans should cover a two-year period and consist of a set of commitments that advance transparency, accountability, participation and/or technological innovation.

The bottomline with Right to Information is this. RTI is not simply a legal or technocratic solution. It is not a quick fix to all problems that affect our society. But it heralds a new way of thinking – a paradigm shift, if you like – that would make our government more open, and our society more focused on using information and data to make our lives better.

Part of the audience at RTI Public Forum on 17 Nov 2015 in Colombo
Part of the audience at RTI Public Forum on 17 Nov 2015 in Colombo
Writer and activist Gamini Viyangoda speaks at RTI Public Forum on 17 Nov 2015
Writer and activist Gamini Viyangoda speaks at RTI Public Forum on 17 Nov 2015

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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