[Op-ed] Sri Lanka’s RTI ‘Glass’ is Slowly Filling Up

Op-ed published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on Sunday, 1 April 2018:

Sri Lanka’s RTI Glass is Slowly Filling Up

by Nalaka Gunawardene

In June 2016, Sri Lanka became the 108th country in the world to pass a law allowing citizens to demand information from the government. After a preparatory period of six months, citizens were allowed to exercise their newly granted Right to Information (RTI) by filing information applications from February 2017 onward.

Just over a year later, the results are a mixed bag of successes, challenges and frustrations. There have been formidable teething problems – some sorted out by now, while others continue to slow down the new law’s smooth operation.

On the ‘supply side’ of RTI, several thousand ‘public authorities’ at central, provincial and local government level had to get ready to practise the notion of ‘open government’.  This includes the all government ministries, departments, state corporations, other stator bodies and companies that are wholly or majority state owned. Despite training programmes and administrative circulars, there remain some gaps in officials’ attitudes, capacity and readiness to process citizens’ RTI applications.

To be sure, we should not expect miracles in one year after we have had 25 centuries of closed government under all the Lankan monarchs, colonial rulers and post-independence governments. RTI is a major conceptual and operational ‘leap’ for some public authorities and officials who have hidden or denied information rather than disclosed or shared it with the public.

Owing to this mindset, some officials have been trying to play hide-and-seek with RTI applications. Others are grudgingly abiding by the letter of the law — but not its spirit. These challenges place a greater responsibility on active citizens to pursue their RTI applications indefatigably.

During the first year of operation, the independent RTI Commission had received a little over 400 appeals from persistent citizens who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. In a clear majority of cases heard so far, the Commission has ordered disclosure of information that was initially declined. These rulings are sending a clear message to all public authorities: RTI is not a choice, but a legal imperative. Fall in line, or else…

To ensure all public authorities comply with this law, it is vital to sustain citizen pressure. This is where the ‘demand side’ of RTI needs a lot more work. Unlike most other laws of the land that government uses, RTI is a rare law that citizens have to exercise – government only responds. Experience across Asia and elsewhere shows that the more RTI is used by people, the sharper and stronger it becomes.

It is hard to assess current public awareness levels on RTI without doing a large sample survey (one is being planned). However, there is growing anecdotal evidence to indicate that more Lankans have heard about RTI even if they are not yet clear on specifics.

But we still have plenty to do on the demand side: citizens need to see RTI as a tool for solving their local level problems – both private and public grievances – and be motivated to file more RTI applications. For this, they must overcome a historical deference towards government, and start demanding answers more vociferously.

Citizens who have been denied clear or any answers to their pressing problems – on missing persons, land rights, subsidies or public spending – are using RTI as an additional tool. We need to sustain momentum. RTI is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even though some journalists and editors were at the forefront in advocating for RTI in Sri Lanka for over two decades, the Lankan media as a whole is yet to grasp RTI’s potential.

Promisingly, some younger journalists have been producing impressive public interest stories – on topics as varied as disaster responses, waste management and human rights abuses – based on what they uncovered with their RTI applications. One of them, working for a Sinhala language daily, has filed over 40 RTI applications and experienced a success rate of around 70 per cent.

Meanwhile, some civil society groups are helping ordinary citizens to file RTI applications. A good example is the Vavuniya-based youth group, the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), that spearheads a campaign to submit RTI applications across Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, seeking information on private land that has been occupied by the military during the civil war and beyond. Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, is running RTI clinics in different parts of the country with Transparency International Sri Lanka to equip citizens to exercise this new right.

The road to open government is a bumpy one, but there is no turning back on this journey. RTI in Sri Lanka may not yet have opened the floodgates of public information, but the dams are slowly but surely breached. Watch this space.

Disclosure: The writer works with both government and civil society groups in training and promoting RTI. These views are his own.

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[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.

 

[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