My comments (in Sinhala) on mass media’s role in disaster response, published by Ravaya broadsheet newspaper on 4 June 2017.
Summary: In the aftermath of all recent disasters in Sri Lanka, private broadcast media houses have been competing with each other to raise and deliver disaster relief. All that is well and good – except that news coverage for their own relief work often eclipses the journalistic coverage of the disaster response in general. In such a situation, where does corporate social responsibility and charity work end and opportunistic brand promotion begin? I argue that media houses must be free to embark on relief efforts, but ideally they should do so having fulfilled their primary responsibility of reporting on and critiquing the post-disaster realities. Sri Lanka’s media reporting of disasters is often superficial, simplistic and incident-driven, which needs to improve to become more investigative, reflective and sustained beyond the immediate news cycle of a disaster. Without fixing these deficiencies, media houses getting into aid collection and donation is a sign of wrong priorities.
From that day, the island nation’s 21 million citizens can exercise their legal right to public information held by various layers and arms of government.
One month is too soon to know how this law is changing a society that has never been able to question their rulers – monarchs, colonials or elected governments – for 25 centuries. But early signs are encouraging.
Sri Lanka’s 22-year advocacy for RTI was led by journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and a few progressive politicians. If it wasn’t a very grassroots campaign, ordinary citizens are beginning to seize the opportunity now.
RTI can be assessed from its ‘supply side’ as well as the ‘demand side’. States are primarily responsible for supplying it, i.e. ensuring that all public authorities are prepared and able to respond to information requests. The demand side is left for citizens, who may act as individuals or in groups.
In Sri Lanka, both these sides are getting into speed, but it still is a bumpy road.
During February, we noticed uneven levels of RTI preparedness across the 52 government ministries, 82 departments, 386 state corporations and hundreds of other ‘public authorities’ covered by the RTI Act. After a six month preparatory phase, some institutions were ready to process citizen requests from Day One. But many were still confused, and a few even turned away early applicants.
Such teething problems are not surprising — turning the big ship of government takes time and effort. We can only hope that all public authorities, across central, provincial and local government, will soon be ready to deal with citizen information requests efficiently and courteously.
Some, like the independent Election Commission, have already set a standard for this by processing an early request for audited financial reports of all registered political parties for the past five years.
On the demand side, citizens from all walks of life have shown considerable enthusiasm. By late February, according to Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Department of Information, more than 1,500 citizen RTI requests had been received. How many of these requests will ultimately succeed, we have to wait and see.
Reports in the media and social media indicate that the early RTI requests cover a wide range of matters linked to private grievances or public interest.
Under the RTI law, public authorities can’t play hide and seek with citizens. They must provide written answers in 14 days, or seek an extension of another 21 days.
To improve their chances and avoid hassle, citizens should ask their questions as precisely as possible, and know the right public authority to lodge their requests. Civil society groups can train citizens on this, even as they file RTI requests of their own.
That too is happening, with trade unions, professional bodies and other NGOs making RTI requests in the public interest. Some of these ask inconvenient yet necessary questions, for example on key political leaders’ asset declarations, and an official assessment of the civil war’s human and property damage (done in 2013).
Politicians and officials are used to dodging such queries under various pretexts, but the right use of RTI law by determined citizens can press them to open up – or else.
The Right to Information Commission will play a decisive role in ensuring the law’s proper implementation. “These are early days for the Commission which is still operating in an interim capacity with a skeletal staff from temporary premises,” it said in a media statement on February 10.
The real proof of RTI – also a fundamental right added to Constitution in 2015 – will be in how much citizens use it to hold government accountable and to solve their pressing problems. Watch this space.
Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter as @NalakaG. Views in this post are his own.
On 16 August 2016, I was invited to speak to the entire senior staff of the Parliament of Sri Lanka on Right to Information (RTI) – South Asian experiences.
Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Right to Information (RTI) law on 24 June 2016. Over 15 years in the making, the RTI law represents a potential transformation across the whole government by opening up hitherto closed public information (with certain clearly specified exceptions related to national security, trade secrets, privacy and intellectual property, etc.).
This presentation introduces the concept of citizens’ right to demand and access public information held by the government, and traces the evolution of the concept from historical time. In fact, Indian Emperor Ashoka (who reigned from c. 268 to 232 Before Christ) was the first to grant his subjects the Right to Information, according to Indian RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). Ashoka had inscribed on rocks all over the Indian subcontinent his government’s policies, development programmes and his ideas on various social, economic and political issues — including how religious co-existence.
Therefore, adopting an RTI law signifies upholding a great Ashokan tradition in Sri Lanka. The presentation looks at RTI good practices and implementation experiences in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldives – all these South Asian countries passed an RTI law before Sri Lanka, and there is much that Sri Lanka can learn from them.
The presentation ends acknowledging the big challenges in implementing RTI in Sri Lanka – reorienting the entire public sector to change its mindset and practices to promote a culture of information sharing and transparent government.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 1 May 2016), I return to the topic of Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law that has recently been tabled in Parliament.
Over 15 years in the making, the RTI law is to be debated in June and expected to be adopted with multi-party consensus. The law represents a transformation across government by opening up hitherto closed public information (with certain cleared specified exceptions).
While media can also benefit from RTI, it is primarily a law for ordinary citizens to demand and receive information related to everyday governance (most of it at local levels). For this, citizens need to understand the RTI process and potential benefits. Media can play a major role in explaining RTI law, and promoting its use in many different ways to promote the public interest and to nurture a culture of evidence-based advocacy for good governance and public accountability.
In this column, I look at how RTI can benefit citizens, and share examples from other South Asian countries where even school children are using RTI to solve local level problems that affect their family, school or local community.
Sri Lanka will hold a general election on 17 August 2015 to elect a new Parliament. It has been preceded by a high level of citizen and civil society advocacy for raising the standard for who should be elected to represent the people as their Members of Parliament.
Public concerns about deteriorating Parliamentary debate and the overall decline and degradation in representative politics were captured by the ‘March 12 Movement’, a mission to elect clean and corruption-free politicians to Parliament.
Parallel to this advocacy, data analysis tools have been used by citizens to probe the conduct of MPs in the last Parliament, which was dissolved on 26 June 2015.
Manthri.lk is a trilingual website that tracks the performance of the 225 Members of Parliament in Sri Lanka. It goes by the official record (Hansard), analysing and coding each statement which is fed into a customised system developed by the website owner and operator – Verite Research, a thinktank that provides strategic analysis and advice for decision-makers and opinion-formers.
In this week’s Ravaya column, (in Sinhala, appearing in issue of 16 August 2015), I share some of the key findings by Manthri.lk website on the conduct of 225 MPs in the last Parliament – 202 of whom are seeking re-election.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I continue the Sinhala adaptation of my June 2014 TV interview with Dr Rajesh Tandon of India, an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development.
Last week, we discussed the civil space and political space available for advocacy and activism – and how far civil society activists have been able to engage the formal political process in India.
Today, we discuss how anti-corruption movement evolved into the Aam Aadmi Party, AAP, and the relevance of India’s experiences to Sri Lanka. We also discuss India’s Right to Information Act and how that has empowered citizens to seek a more open and accountable government at national, state and local levels. Dr Tandon ends by emphasizing that democracy is a work in progress that needs constant engagement and vigilance.
Civil society – in its widest sense – played a key role in the recent peaceful change of government in Sri Lanka. It was civil society advocacy – for ending corruption, ensuring independence of judiciary, and increasing democratic checks and balances on the executive presidency – that inspired a larger citizen demand for better governance. The parliamentary opposition was pushed into belated action by these citizen demands.
What is the role of civil society in the political process? How and where does the civil space intersect with the political space? How can civil society engage formal political parties without being subsumed or co-opted?
In June 2014, I posed these questions to Dr Rajesh Tandon of India, an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development, when I interviewed him for Young Asia Television (YATV) – I was just ‘standing in’ for the regular host Sanjana Hattotuwa.
That interview’s contents are now more relevant to Sri Lanka than 8 months ago. So I have just rendered it into Sinhala. In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I share the first half of the interview. To be continued next week…
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), published in the issue dated 11 January 2015, I offer an initial analysis of media-based political campaign communications during the run-up to Sri Lanka’s 7th Presidential Election on 8 January 2015. The column was written on 5 January, as physical campaigning (meetings and outdoor promotion) came to an end. The Ravaya issue carrying this hit the newsstands on election day.
In this, I pay particular attention to the use of social media by political parties as well as independent citizens and civil society groups. I also discuss the missed opportunity of holding a televised live debate between the two main candidates – to which opposition’s common candidate Maithripala Sirisena agreed, but was declined by incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
See also my recent other columns on elections, digital democracy and social media: