[op-ed] Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

First published in International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) South Asia blog on 3 March 2017.

Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka's Right to Information (RTI) law - by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) law – by Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Law, adopted through a rare Parliamentary consensus in June 2016, became fully operational on 3 February 2017.

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.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

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.

One such violator of the law was the Ministry of Health that refused to accept an RTI application for information on numbers affected by Chronic Kidney Disease and treatment being given.

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.

Citizens are turning to RTI law for answers that have eluded them for years. One request filed by a group of women in Batticaloa sought information on loved ones who disappeared during the 26-year-long civil war, a question shared by thousands of others. A youth group is helping people in the former conflict areas of the North to ask much land is still being occupied by the military, and how much of it is state-owned and privately-owned. Everywhere, poor people want clarity on how to access various state subsidies.

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.

President Maithripala Sirisena was irked that a civil society group wanted to see his asset declaration. His government’s willingness to obey its own law will be a litmus test for yahapalana (good governance) pledges he made to voters in 2015.

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.

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017

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තොරතුරු අයිතිය සමාජ සාධාරණත්වය වෙනුවෙන් හොඳ ආරම්භයක් – නාලක ගුණවර්ධන

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum on Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law. Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum on Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law. Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

On 15 February 2017, I served as main speaker at a public forum in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s newly operational RTI law and its wider socio-cultural and political implications. The event, organized by the National Media Forum (NMF), was attended by a large number of journalists, social activists, lawyers, government officials and other citizens.

Here is one news report on the event, by Lanka News Web:

තොරතුරු අයිතිය සමාජ සාධාරණත්වය වෙනුවෙන් හොඳ ආරම්භයක් – නාලක ගුණවර්ධන

තොරතුරු දැන ගැනීමේ අයිතිය පිලිබඳ ඉදිරියේදී දුර්මත ගොඩනැගීමටත් දියාරු කිරීමටත් හැකියාව ඇති හෙයින් එම තත්ත්වයන්ට මුහුණ දීමට සූදානමින් සිටිය යුතු බව ප්‍රවීණ මාධ්‍යවේදී නාලක ගුණවර්ධන මහතා පැවසීය.

ඔහු මේ බව සඳහන් කළේ ඊයේ (15) පැවති ජාතික මාධ්‍ය සංසදය මඟින් සංවිධානය කර තිබූ “තොරතුරු පනතට සමාජ සංස්කෘතිය ඉක්මවිය හැකිද?” සංවාද සභාවේ මුඛ්‍ය දේශනය පවත්වමිනි.

පනතේ 20 වැනි වගන්තියට අනුව ප්‍රගාමී තොරතුරු දීම සම්බන්දයෙන් කර ඇති සඳහන ඉතා හොඳ ආරම්භයක් බවයි ගුණවර්ධන මහතා ප්‍රකාශ කළේ.පුරවැසියන් තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීමට ප්‍රථම ස්වෙච්ජාවෙන් ඒවා ලබා දිය යුතු බවට වන වගන්තිය පුරවැසියන්ගේ තොරතුරු අයිතිය තහවුරු කරන්නක් බව පෙන්වා දෙන හෙතෙම අවධාරණය කළේ කලාපයේ තොරතුරු නිතිය ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීමේ අත්දැකීම් ඇති රටවල සහය අපටද ලබා ගත හැකි බවයි.මේ සඳහා පුරවැසියන්ගේ සක්‍රීය දායකත්වයද අවශ්‍ය බව හෙතෙම සඳහන් කළේය.

ඉන්දියානු සමාජයේ තොරතුරු අයිතිය දිනා ගැනීමේ ප්‍රබල අරගලයක් කළ සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරිකයෙකු වන ෂෙකර් සිං සමාජ ගත කරමින් පවතින කාරණා පිළිබඳවද නාලක ගුණවර්ධන මහතා අදහස් පළ කළේය.ෂේකර් සිං මතු කරන ප්‍රධාන කාරණයක් වන මෙම අයිතිය දිනා ගැනීම වෙනුවෙන් ප්‍රජාතාන්ත්‍රීය, ප්‍රගතිශීලි හැමදෙනාම එක්ව ක්‍රියා කළ යුතු බව ගුණවර්ධන මහතා පෙන්වා දුන්නේය.

දේශපාලන අධිකාරිය හා නිලධාරීන් මේ සම්බන්ධයෙන් නිවැරදිව සක්‍රීයව මැදිහත් වන්නේ පුරවැසියන් ඊට දක්වන ප්‍රතිචාරය මත වන හෙයින් පුරවැසියා මේ පිලිබඳ බලගැන්වීම අවශ්‍ය කරුණක් බව හෙතෙම අවධාරණය කළේය.

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Priyantha Wedamulla

L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Priyantha Wedamulla

සංවාද සභාව ඇමතූ ජාතික මාධ්‍ය සංසදයේ කැඳවුම්කරු මාධ්‍යවේදිනී මන්දනා ඉස්මයිල් අබේවික්‍රම මහත්මිය ප්‍රකාශ කළේ මෙතෙක් පැවති අත්දැකීම් අනුව තොරතුරු ලබාදීමට ආණ්ඩු සුදානම් නොමැති හෙයින් තොරතුරු පනත ක්‍රියාත්මක කරවාගැනීමට සිදුව ඇත්තේ වෙනසකට ලක් නොවුණු දේශපාලන සංස්කෘතික පසුබිමක හිදිමින් බවයි.පාර්ලිමේන්තු මන්ත්‍රී වරප්‍රසාද යටතේ පවා තොරතුරු ලබා ගැනීමට නොහැකි දේශපාලන පසුබිමක අපට කටයුතු කිරීමට සිදු වූ බව ඇය පෙන්වා දුන්නේය. එහෙත් මෙම තත්ත්වයන් අභියෝගයට ලක් කළ යුතු බවත් ඊට පුරවැසියා මැදිහත් විය යුතු බවත් ය වැඩිදුරටත් පැවසීය.

Here is the video of my full speech (in Sinhala):

RTI Sri Lanka: රාජ්‍ය තොරතුරු ඉල්ලන පුරවැසි සංවිධානවලට ජනපති ආඩපාලි කියන්නේ ඇයි?

Op-ed published in Vikalpa.org citizen journalism website on 18 February 2017.

BBC Sinhala 17 Feb 2017 - President Sirisena criticises 'certain NGOs' making info requests under Sri Lanka's new Right to Information (RTI) Law

BBC Sinhala 17 Feb 2017 – President Sirisena criticises ‘certain NGOs’ making info requests under Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Law

පාපන්දු ක්‍රීඩාවේදී අතිශයින් නොසැළකිලිමත් ක්‍රීඩකයකු අතින් කලාතුරකින් තමන්ගේම පැත්තේ ගෝලයට පන්දුව එල්ල කිරීම සිදුවනවා. මෙය හඳුන්වන්නේ own-goal නමින්. දේශපාලකයොත් විටින්විට තමන්ගේම යහ පිලිවෙත් හා හොඳ වැඩසටහන් අඩාල කළ හැකි නොගැලපෙන කථා කියනවා. හරියට own-goal වගේ.

තමන්ගේ හොඳ මැතිවරණ පොරොන්දුවක් වන තොරතුරු නීතිය, මැතිවරණයෙන් දෙවසරක් ගත වී අන්තිමේදී ක්‍රියාත්මක වන විට ජනාධිපති මෛත්‍රීපාල සිරිසේන එයට ආඩපාලි කියා එහි අගය හෑල්ලු කරන්නේ ඇයි?

2017 පෙබරවාරි 17 අරලියගහ මන්දිරයේ පැවති තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ අයිතිය ශ්‍රී ලාංකික පුරවැසියන්ට ලබාදීමේ නිල උත්සවයේදී කථාවක් කරමින් ජනපතිවරයා තොරතුරු නීතිය යටතේ මුල්ම තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීමක් කළ පුරවැසි සංවිධානවලට දොස් කියා තිබෙනවා (මාධ්‍ය වාර්තාවලට අනුව).

තොරතුරු නීතිය ක්‍රියාත්මක වීම ඇරඹුනු 2017 පෙබරවාරි 3 වනදාම ට්‍රාන්ස්පේරන්සි ඉන්ටර්නැෂනල් ශ්‍රී ලංකා ආයතනය ජනාධිපතිවරයාගේ සහ අගමැතිවරයාගේ වත්කම් ප්‍රකාශ හෙළිකරන ලෙස එම නීතිය යටතේ අදාල කාර්යාල දෙකට ඉල්ලීම් යොමු කළා. නීතියට අනුව එයට දින 14ක් තුළ ප්‍රතිචාර දැක්විය යුතුයි. දින 14 නිමා වන පෙබරවාරි 17 වනදා තමයි ජනපතිවරයා මෙසේ ප්‍රකාශයක් කරන්නේ.

BBC සිංහල වාර්තාවට අනුව ජනපති මෙසේ කියා තිබෙනවා: “ගැසට් එක පලකළ පෙබරවාරි 2 දිනය දාලම මටයි අගමැතිතුමාටයි, රාජ්‍ය නොවන සංවිධානයක් ඉල්ලනව වත්කම් ඉල්ලලා. මම හරි සතුටු වෙනවා ඒ ගැන. හැමෝම නෙවෙයි, ඇතැම් රාජ්‍ය නොවන සංවිධාන තම ලියාපදිංචි වෙච්ච විෂය ක්ෂේත්‍රයට එහා යනවා. මට නම් මගේ වත්කම් ගැන කිසි ප්‍රශ්නයක් නැහැ.” http://www.bbc.com/sinhala/sport-39005712

2016 අංක 12 දරණ තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ පනත යටතේ ඕනැම පුරවැසියකුට හෝ සංවිධානයකට ජනපති, අගමැති වත්කම් ප්‍රකාශ ඉල්ලිය හැකියි. තමන් එය ඉල්ලා සිටින්නේ ඇයිද යන්න හෝ එසේ ලබා ගන්නා තොරතුරු තම විෂය පථයට අයත්ද ආදී කිසිවක් දැක්විය යුතු නෑ.

මේ නිසා තමන්ම පොරොන්දු වී ලබා දුන් යහපාලන ප්‍රතිඥාවක් ක්‍රියාත්මක වන විට ජනපතිවරයා මෙවන් ප්‍රකාශයක් කිරීම ඉතා කණගාටුදායකයි. එයින් වක්‍රාකරව සිවිල් සමාජය දිගටම තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීම් කිරීම දුර්මුඛ කළ හැකියි.

දේශපාලකයන්ගේ වත්කම් බැරකම් තොරතුරු හෝ තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ පනත යටතේ ප්‍රතික්ෂේප කළ හැකි යයි කියා ඇති සීමිත පරාසය හැර අන් ඕනෑම තොරතුරක් හෝ ඉල්ලා සිටීමට මෙරට පුරවැසියන්ට මූලික අයිතියක් ව්‍යවස්ථාවෙන්ම ලබා දී තිබෙනවා. එය දේශපාලන නායකයන්ගේ ආඩපාලිවලින් අඩපණ වීමට ඉඩ නොදෙමු!

මේ රජය තොරතුරු අයිතිය නීතියෙන්ම ලබා දීම අප අගය කරනවා. එහෙත් එය නිසියාකාරව ක්‍රියාත්මක වීමට අවශ්‍ය වාතාවරණය බිහි කිරීමේ වගකීමද රජයේ දේශපාලන නායකයන්ගේ වගකීමක්.

 

[Op-ed]: Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

As 2016 drew to a close, The Sunday Leader newspaper asked me for my views on Lankan civil society’s key challenges in 2017. I had a word limit of 350. Here is what I wrote, published in their edition of 1 January 2017:

Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sections of Sri Lanka’s civil society were closely associated with the political changes that happened at the presidential and general elections in 2015. That was only natural as the notion of good governance had been articulated and promoted by civil society for years before Maithri and Ranil embraced it.

Now, as we enter 2017, civil society faces the twin challenges of holding the current government to account, and preventing yaha-palanaya ideal from being discredited by expedient politicians. At the same time, civil society must also become more professionalised and accountable.

‘Civil society’ is a basket term: it covers a variety of entities outside the government and corporate sectors. These include not only non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but also trade unions, student unions, professional associations (and federations), and community based or grassroots groups. Their specific mandates differ, but on the whole civil society strives for a better, safer and healthier society for everyone.

The path to such a society lies inevitably through a political process, which civil society cannot and should not avoid. Some argue that civil society’s role is limited to service delivery. In reality, worthy tasks like tree planting, vaccine promoting and microcredit distributing are all necessary, but not all sufficient if fundamentals are not in place. For lasting change to happen, civil society must engage with the core issues of governance, rights and social justice.

Ideally, however, civil society groups should not allow themselves to be used or subsumed by political parties. I would argue that responsible civil society groups now set the standards for our bickering and hesitant politicians to aspire to.

Take, for example, two progressive legal measures adopted during 2016: setting aside a 25% mandatory quota for women in local government elections, and legalising the Right to Information. Both these had long been advocated by enlightened civil society groups. They must now stay vigilant to ensure the laws are properly implemented.

Other ideals, like the March 12 Movement for ensuring clean candidates at all elections, need sustained advocacy. So Lankan civil society has plenty of unfinished business in 2017.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes on science, development and governance issues. He tweets from @NalakaG.

Note: Cartoons appearing here did not accompany the article published in The Sunday Leader.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he had articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia: Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016

The Hawaii-based East-West Center held its 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016. Themed “South Asia Looking East”, it drew over 350 participants from across Asia and the United States.

On September 11, I moderated a plenary session on Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia: Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road.

It tried to distill key lessons in RTI implementation from India and Pakistan, especially for the benefit of Sri Lanka that has recently adopted its RTI law. Such lessons could also benefit other countries currently advocating their own RTI laws.

Panel on Right to Information in South Asia, 11 Sep 2016 in New Delhi. L to R - Venkatesh Nayak, Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Panel on Right to Information in South Asia, 11 Sep 2016 in New Delhi. L to R – Venkatesh Nayak, Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Here is the synopsis I wrote for the panel:

Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia:

Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road

In June 2016, Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously passed a Right to Information (RTI) Act, making the island nation the 108th country to have a RTI or freedom of information (FOI) law. That leaves only Bhutan in South Asia without such a law, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi.

Sri Lanka’s RTI law was preceded by over two decades of sustained advocacy by journalists, social activists and progressive lawyers. But the struggle is far from over. The island nation now faces the daunting task of ‘walking the talk’ on RTI, which involves a total reorientation of government and active engagement by citizens. As other South Asian countries know only too well, proper RTI implementation requires political will, administrative support and sufficient funds.

This panel is an attempt to address the following key questions:

  • How do India and Pakistan fare in terms of implementing their RTI laws?
  • What challenges did they face in the early days of RTI implementation?
  • What roles did government, civil society and media play in RTI process?
  • What key lessons and cautions can their experiences offer to Sri Lanka?
  • Can South Asia’s RTI experience offer hope for other countries pursuing RTI laws of their own?

In this session, experienced RTI activists from India and Pakistan will join a Sri Lankan policymaker in surveying the challenges of openness and transparency through RTI.

Panel:

  • Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General, Department of Information, Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Government of Sri Lanka
  • Mr Venkatesh Nayak, RTI activist; Programme Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), New Delhi
  • Ms Maleeha Hamid SIDDIQUI, Senior Sub-Editor and Reporter, Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan

Moderator: Mr Nalaka Gunawardene, Science writer and media researcher who is secretary of the RTI Advisory Task Force of Ministry of Mass Media, Sri Lanka

L to R - Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

L to R – Ranga Kalansooriya, Nalaka Gunawardene & Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

Right to Information (RTI): Sri Lanka can learn much from South Asian Experiences

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Sri Lanka Parliament staff, 16 Aug 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Sri Lanka Parliament staff, 16 Aug 2016

 

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.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Parliament staff, Sri Lanka - 16 Aug 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at RTI Seminar for Parliament staff, Sri Lanka – 16 Aug 2016

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.

 

 

[Op-ed] RTI in Sri Lanka: It took 22 years, and journey continues

My op-ed essay on Right to Information (RTI) in Sri Lanka, published in the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) South Asia blogsite (SAMSN Digital Hub) on 14 July 2016:

RTI in Sri Lanka - Nalaka Gunawardene op-ed published in IFJ South Asia blog, 14 July 2016

RTI in Sri Lanka – Nalaka Gunawardene op-ed published in IFJ South Asia blog, 14 July 2016

RTI in Sri Lanka:

It took 22 years, and journey continues

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s Parliament debated the Right to Information (RTI) bill for two days (23 – 24 June 2016) before adopting it into law. No member opposed it, although some amendments were done during the debate.

If that sounds like an easy passage, it was preceded by over two decades of advocacy with various false starts and setbacks. A large number of Lankans and a few supportive foreigners share the credit for Sri Lanka becoming the 108th country in the world to have its own RTI (or freedom of information) law.

How we reached this point is a case study of campaigning for policy change and law reform in a developing country with an imperfect democracy. The journey deserves greater documentation and analysis, but here I want to look at the key strategies, promoters and enablers.

The story began with the change of government in Parliamentary elections of August 1994. The newly elected People’s Alliance (PA) government formulated a media policy that included a commitment to people’s right to know.

But the first clear articulation of RTI came in May 1996, from an expert committee appointed by the media minister to advise on reforming laws affecting media freedom and freedom of expression. The committee, headed by eminent lawyer R K W Goonesekere (and thus known as the Goonesekere Committee) recommended many reforms – including a constitutional guarantee of RTI.

Sadly, that government soon lost its zeal for reforms, but some ideas in that report caught on. Chief among them was RTI, which soon attracted the advocacy of some journalists, academics and lawyers. And even a few progressive politicians.

Different players approached the RTI advocacy challenge in their own ways — there was no single campaign or coordinated action. Some spread the idea through media and civil society networks, inspiring the ‘demand side’ of RTI. Others lobbied legislators and helped draft laws — hoping to trigger the ‘supply side’. A few public intellectuals helpfully cheered from the sidelines.

Typical policy development in Sri Lanka is neither consultative nor transparent. In such a setting, all that RTI promoters could do was to keep raising it at every available opportunity, so it slowly gathered momentum.

For example, the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility – issued by the country’s leading media organisations in 1998 – made a clear and strong case for RTI. It said, “The Official Secrets Act which defines official secrets vaguely and broadly should be repealed and a Freedom of Information Act be enacted where disclosure of information will be the norm and secrecy the exception.”

That almost happened in 2002-3, when a collaboratively drafted RTI law received Cabinet approval. But an expedient President dissolved Parliament prematurely, and the pro-RTI government did not win the ensuing election.

RTI had no chance whatsoever during the authoritarian rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2014. Separate attempts to introduce RTI laws by a Minister of Justice and an opposition Parliamentarian (now Speaker of Parliament) were shot down. If anyone wanted information, the former President once told newspaper editors, they could just ask him…

His unexpected election defeat in January 2015 finally paved the way for RTI, which was an election pledge of the common opposition. Four months later, the new government added RTI to the Constitution’s fundamental rights. The new RTI Act now creates a mechanism for citizens to exercise that right.

Meanwhile, there is a convergence of related ideas like open government (Sri Lanka became first South Asian country to join Open Government Partnership in 2015) and open data – the proactive disclosure of public data in digital formats.

These new advocacy fronts can learn from how a few dozen public spirited individuals kept the RTI flames alive, sometimes through bleak periods. Some pioneers did not live to see their aspiration become reality.

Our RTI challenges are far from over. We now face the daunting task of implementing the new law. RTI calls for a complete reorientation of government. Proper implementation requires political will, administrative support and sufficient funds. We also need vigilance by civil society and the media to guard against the whole process becoming mired in too much red tape.

RTI is a continuing journey. We have just passed a key milestone.

Science writer and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene has long chronicled Sri Lanka’s information society and media development issues. He tweets at @NalakaG.