Back in 2009-2010, I used to host a half hour show on Siyatha TV, a private television channel in Sri Lanka, on inventions and innovation.
So it was good to return to Siyatha on 27 September 2016 — this time as a guest on their weekly talk show CIVIL, to talk about Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law.
Joining me was Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, experienced and versatile journalist who has recently become Director General of the Government Department of Information. Our amiable host was Prasanna Jayaneththi.
We discussed aspects of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Act No 12 of 2016, adopted in late June 2016, with all political parties in Parliament supporting it. Certified by the Speaker on 4 August 2016, we are now in a preparatory period of six months during which all public institutions get ready for processing citizen request for information.
I emphasized on the vital DEMAND side of RTI: citizens and their various associations and groups need to know enough about their new right to demand and receive information from public officials — and then be motivated to exercise that right.
I argued that making RTI a fundamental right (through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in April 2015), passing the RTI Act in June 2016 and re-orienting the entire public sector for information disclosure represent the SUPPLY side. It needs to be matched by inspiring and catalysing the DEMAND side, without which this people’s law cannot benefit people.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 3 July 2016), I recall the key pioneers, promoters and enablers. The long journey deserves greater documentation and analysis, but I hope this quick tribute initiates such chronicling.
I was interviewed by BBC Sinhala in London on 21 June 2016, on the eve of Sri Lanka’s Parliament passing the long-waited Right to Information law. In this interview with BBC’s Saroj Pathirana, I look at the journey so far (it took over 2o years to get this law adopted) and challenges than remain.
Chief among the challenges from now on: reorienting all state structures to be open and info-sharing rather than closed and secretive (default mode until now); raising public awareness on the provisions and benefits of RTI law (including debunking of myths and misconceptions); and learning to be a more information-literate society as a whole.
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 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.
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.
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
Sri Lanka’s Parliament is debating the Right to Information (RTI) Bill on June 23 – 24.
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.).
While the media benefits 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). RTI changes the default mode of government from being classified to open.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 26 June 2016), I point out that although the modern-day concept of Right to Information (also known as Freedom of Information) arose in Europe in the 18th century, there are comparable precedents in the East that date back to over two millennia.
Indian Emperor Ashoka (who reigned from c. 268 to 232 Before Christ) was the first to grant his subjects the Right to Information (RTI), according to Indian RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
Speaking at a seminar on RTI in Colombo last month, Nayak said that 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.
“He insisted that the inscriptions should be in the local language and not in a courtly language like Sanskrit. And considering the fact that few of his subjects were literate, he enjoined officials to read out the edits to people at public gatherings,” Nayak added.
Therefore, adopting an RTI law signifies upholding a great Ashokan tradition in Sri Lanka. And implementing it would be a huge challenge – reorienting the entire public sector to change its mindset and practices to promote a culture of information sharing and transparent government.
On 11 May 2016, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms & Mass Media convened a meeting with the senior managers of print and broadcasting media house to discuss how media can support the new Right to Information (RTI) law that has recently been tabled in Parliament.
Nearly 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.
This presentation was made by media researcher and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene in his capacity as a member of the voluntary Right to Information Task Force convened by the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms & Mass Media. He illustrates how RTI can benefit citizens, and shares examples from other South Asian countries where newspapers and broadcast houses have been promoting RTI in innovative ways.