[Op-ed] Sri Lanka’s Right to Information: A New Journey Begins Now!

Text of an op-ed essay I wrote within hours of Sri Lanka’s Parliament passing the Right to Information (RTI) law. It has been published in The Sunday Observer today, 26 June 2016.

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Daily Mirror newspaper Sri Lanka

Cartoon by Awantha Artigala, Daily Mirror newspaper Sri Lanka

Right to Information: A New Journey Begins Now!

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

On 24 June 2016, Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously adopted the Right to Information (RTI) law.

This marks the culmination of over two decades of advocacy by civil society groups and journalists. It also fulfills a key promise of the yahapalana government.

Passing the law has been no easy task, as it went through a year of drafting, judicial review by Supreme Court, and considerable political scrutiny. The government and other political parties in Parliament – who rarely agree on anything – came together to pass the law without a vote.

However, our challenges are far from over. Now begins the daunting task of implementing the new law. RTI calls for a complete reorientation of government in how it handles information and promotes openness. This is unfamiliar ground.

As one skeptical citizen, Harindra Dassanayake (@HarindraBD) said on Twitter within hours of the law passing: “Lanka as many good laws, with hopeless or zero impact. Hope RTI [would] be different. It’s time to act and not celebrate.”

Indeed, there is much to do. The law’s adoption is only a fresh start. Proper implementation requires political will, administrative support and sufficient public funds.

We would also need on-going monitoring by civil society groups and the media to guard against the whole process becoming mired in too much red tape.

Late comers, quick learners?

With the new law, Sri Lanka becomes the 108th country in the world to have introduced RTI laws, also known as freedom of information laws.

That leaves only Bhutan in South Asia without a national RTI law, according to Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi.

Nayak, a noted RTI expert and activist, says that countries without RTI laws are becoming a smaller and smaller minority on the planet.

He adds: “But for the long drawn ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka would have been the second country in South Asia to enact a national RTI law if efforts made in 2003-4 had reached fruition.”

In the event, Sri Lanka took the belated first step in April 2015, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution made the right to information a fundamental right. The RTI Act puts in place the administrative arrangement to enable citizens can exercise that right.

Sri Lanka is certainly a late comer to the global RTI community, but we can exploit this to our advantage. Our neighbours and others countries have so much experience in this respect that can help us in implementation.

For example, RTI has emerged such a powerful tool in the hands of Indian citizens since the national law came into effect in 2005. So much so that it is now become a verb (as in “We will RTI this information” when confronted with a problem).

Across India, young schoolchildren and grandmothers with no formal education are using RTI requests to solve local level problems – from overdue scholarship payments to restoring suspended rural bus services.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh, which adopted its RTI law in 2009, citizens and NGOs are creatively using public information to combat poverty and counter corruption.

RTI has transformed Indian society within a decade

RTI has transformed Indian society within a decade

RTI needs imagination

What transformative impacts can the RTI law have on Lankan society, politics and governance? The answer is in everybody’s hands.

Unlike most other laws, RTI is one for citizens to seize and use. That, in turn, requires a commitment to the public interest, plus plenty of imagination and tenacity.

When the new Act comes into effect six months from now, any citizen of any age should be able to seek and receive information held with a public authority at central, provincial or local levels.

The law covers all organs of the State – Parliament, Executive (President and Cabinet) and the Judiciary. This includes the police and public sector corporations, local government bodies, as well as private entities carrying out public functions or providing public services under contract or license from local authorities (to the extent such work is concerned).

To be sure, the law has some exemptions when the right of access to information may be denied on legitimate grounds such as protecting the privacy of individuals, safeguarding national security and preventing the premature release of vital economic data (e.g. exchange rates, regulation of banking and taxation). These are common to RTI laws the world over.

Some are not happy with the extent of exemptions. But in my view, we should focus on so much information that now becomes our right to ask for — and receive within 21 days or less.

On the part of public authorities, they will no longer be allowed to release information as and when they wish. RTI law defines how it must be done and failure to do so has consequences for public officials.

Citizens, on their part, must find sufficient purpose and focus in information they can demand and receive. RTI is not a mere political slogan, but a practical tool for solving problems.

Problem solving

For example, how does our local body spend our tax money? On what basis are Samurdhi beneficiaries selected? Or how are government jobs given to some and not others?

RTI will prise open the hitherto closely guarded ‘reservoirs’ of information.

A five member RTI Commission appointed by the President — on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council — will monitor and process and investigate citizen complaints and appeals. The Commission’s decisions can also be challenged before the Court of Appeal.

All this concerns the ‘supply side’ of public information, which is surely going to be enhanced.  But what about the demand side? Are we ready for active citizenship armed with more information?

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.

In the coming weeks and months, much needs to be done to ensure RTI readiness among public officials, and RTI awareness among the public.

Finally, citizens can look back at govt...do we know how?

Finally, citizens can look back at govt…do we know how?

Bigger Picture

As we get busy with the nitty-gritty operational details, let us not lose sight of the bigger picture. RTI signifies unleashing a new potential, and a major change in the status quo.

First, we must shake off a 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.

The ‘default setting’ in most government agencies is to deny and restrict information. To change this, both public servants and citizens will need a paradigm shift in their minds.

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, our society can start moving along a more open, informed and inquisitive pathway.

Science writer and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene has long chronicled the rise of Sri Lanka’s information society. He tweets at @NalakaG

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