[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.

 

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Exploring Open Data and Open Government in Sri Lanka

An Open Dialogue about Open Data

An Open Dialogue about Open Data

Today, I gave the opening speech at an introductory seminar on ‘open data’ held at the Sri Lanka Press Institute, Colombo, on 15 Oct 2015.

Organised by InterNews and Transparency International Sri Lanka, the seminar explored the concepts of ‘open data’ and ‘big data’ and discussed that role civil society, media and technologists can play in advocating to government to open up its data, enabling a culture of transparency and open government.

An Open Dialogue on Open Data - 15 Oct 2015 Coloombo - L to R - Sriganesh Lokanathan, Nalaka Gunawardene, Sanjana Hattotuwa [Photo by Sam de Silva]

An Open Dialogue on Open Data – 15 Oct 2015 Coloombo – L to R – Sriganesh Lokanathan, Nalaka Gunawardene, Sanjana Hattotuwa [Photo by Sam de Silva]

My premise was that while the proliferation of digital tools and growth of web-based data storage (the cloud) opens up new possibilities for information generation and sharing, South Asian societies need to tackle institutional and cultural factors before democratised and digital data can really transform governance and development. Our countries must adopt more inclusive policies and practices for public sharing of scientific and other public data.

This resonates with a call by the United Nations for a ‘data revolution for development’. I cited the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG) highlighted this in a report titled  A World That Counts: Mobilising The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (Nov 2014).

A World that Counts...

A World that Counts…

I also referred to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by member states of the UN at a heads of state level summit in New York on 25-27 September 2015. Underpinning all 17 SDGs is an explicit recognition of the value of data for development — to better inform decisions, and to better monitor progress.

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena addressed the Summit, and officially committed Sri Lanka to the SDGs. I argue that implicit in that commitment is a recognition of data for development and open data policies. We now need to ask our government to introduce a government-wide policy on data collection, storage and sharing. In short, it must open up!

This was my open call to the President to open up:

Open Your Govt's Data, Mr President! Hope you don't give us HAL's famous answer...

Open Your Govt’s Data, Mr President! Hope you don’t give us HAL’s famous answer…

Sri Lanka has taken tentative steps towards open data. In 2013, the Open Data initiative of Government started making some official datasets freely available online. It focuses on machine-readable (well-structured and open) datasets.

I quoted from my own recent op-ed published in Daily Mirror broadsheet newspaper:

Daily Mirror, 14 Sep 2015: Beyond RTI: Moving to Open Data and Open Govt. by Nalaka Gunawardene

After many years of advocacy by civil society, Sri Lanka will soon adopt a law that guarantees citizens’ Right to Information (RTI). It has recently been added to the Constitution as a fundamental right.

Passing the RTI law is only a beginning — institutionalising it requires much effort, considerable funds, and continued vigilance on civil society’s part.

RTI is Coming: Are We Ready? My question to Lankan civil society and media

RTI is Coming: Are We Ready? My question to Lankan civil society and media

As champions of RTI, media and civil society must now switch roles, I said. While benefiting from RTI themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere, showing citizens how best to make use of it. Reorienting our public institutions to a new culture of openness and information sharing will be an essential step.

Here is my full PPT:

 

Echelon March 2015 column: Beyond RTI – Towards Open Government

Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, March 2015 issue. Published online at: http://www.echelon.lk/home/beyond-rti-towards-open-government/

Beyond RTI: Towards Open Government

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk/

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk/

After many years of advocacy by civil society, Sri Lanka is set to adopt a law that guarantees citizens’ Right to Information (RTI). With that, we will at last catch up with nearly 100 countries that have introduced such progressive laws.

Better late than never — but passing the law is only a beginning. Institutionalising it requires effort and funds. Continued vigilance is needed on civil society’s part to guard against the process becoming mired in red tape.

RTI signifies unleashing a new potential. To draw an analogy from water management, opening a ‘sluice’ does not by itself mean much unless the downstream systems are in place. In both cases, the recipients need to know how to make the best use of what comes through.

Journey so far

Why is RTI such a big deal?

Its basis is that in democracies, the public have every right to know what is being done in their name by those entrusted with governance.

RTI is the right to access and obtain information from public officials. This right serves several purposes: improve public participation in policy making; promote transparency and accountability in government; and minimise wastage and corruption of state resources by public officials.

RTI and freedom of information are used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two.

According to lawyer Gehan Gunatilleke, who recently wrote a book on the subject (published by Sri Lanka Press Institute, 2014), freedom of information implies a citizen’s freedom to access and receive public information on request. In such a situation, the government should not violate that freedom by restricting access. RTI goes further, and implies that information is an inherent right of the people. Governments are duty-bound to provide such information.

The concept of RTI can be traced back to the principle of ‘public access’ which emerged in Europe during the 18th century. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to legislate RTI: it allowed the public access to government documents.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted at the United Nations in 1948, recognised the right to seek, impart and receive information as part the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19).

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

RTI does not mean opening up everything. Sensitive information – related to national security, for example – is excluded. The challenge is to strike a healthy balance between full transparency and a few justified exemptions.

 Indian experience

In Asia, India was a frontrunner in developing RTI laws. The campaign for RTI started in the 1990s with a grassroots movement driven by social activists and rural groups. They saw its clear value to counter the growing misuse of authority and public funds by local officials.

State level RTI laws were adopted in Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Delhi (2001) and Maharashtra (2002). The national law came into effect in October 2005 after a decade of agitation.

Under the Indian law, citizens can request information from any ‘public authority’ within 30 days. It covers all branches of government — executive, legislature and judiciary – as well as institutions and statutory bodies set up by an act of national Parliament or a state legislature. Even non-governmental organisations, if they receive significant amounts of government funds, are covered.

The act required all public authorities to appoint a public information officer (PIO) to handle RTI requests. It also mandated computerizing of public records so that certain categories of information are proactively published online, enabling interested citizens to just look it up.

Since the RTI law was introduced, India has seen an improvement in governance, dissemination of information and involvement of civil society in the governance process, says Dr Rajesh Tandon, founder and head of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives.

At the same time, Tandon points out that some challenges remain at implementation level. Certain states in India have been more active in creating a culture of information sharing and open government, he told me in a television interview in mid 2014.

As Indians found out, it isn’t easy to shake off centuries of misplaced state secrecy and mistrust in the public. “Old rules and procedures continue to co-exist as new laws and methods are invented. Official Secrecy Act and Right to Information Act co-exist, just as written precedent and e-governance co-exist,” says Tandon (watch our full interview: https://vimeo.com/118544161).

 New challenges

In Sri Lanka, civil society groups and journalists’ organisations were at the forefront advocating RTI. Groups like Transparency International and Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) have been lobbying, training and raising awareness on the societal value of this right.

However, RTI is not only for journalists or social activists. It is a right for all citizens living in modern societies where their well-being – sometimes even survival – depends on knowing critical information. Ignorance may have been bliss once upon a time, but it is not recommended for the 21st century.

Reorienting the public institutions to a new culture of openness and sharing will be an essential step. Undoing decades of habits will take effort.

Asanga Welikala, a legal scholar now with the Edinburgh Law School, said in a tweet that we need a moratorium of ‘at least two years’ before RTI law comes into force – so as to train officials and make all government procedures compliant.

He also says the Information Commission must have a proper budget for promotion and public awareness of the new Act, rights and procedures. For example, how to ensure citizen information requests can be accommodated equally in both official languages and the link language?

As champions of RTI, media and civil society must now switch roles. While benefiting from it themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere, showing citizens how best to make use of it.

National Right to Ino laws status - as of 2013 Source: http://home.broadpark.no/~wkeim/foi.htm

National Right to Ino laws status – as of 2013 Source: http://home.broadpark.no/~wkeim/foi.htm

Info Literacy

Public information can exist in many forms today – ranging from minutes of meetings, budget allocation and expense records, and scientifically gathered information such as census data, or trade statistics. These may be stored on paper, tape or – increasingly – in digital formats.

In recent years, with digital technologies the volume of specialised data held by governments has risen phenomenally. Both the data custodians and public today need higher levels of information literacy to navigate through this torrent.

The good news: the web makes it easier to store and share information. ‘Open Data’ means that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.

The open data approach is especially applied to scientific data and government data. But the debate is far from settled: while there are many strong arguments for opening up, some are concerned about potential misuses. Guidelines are still evolving.

A key attribute of open data is its usability. Each country needs to adopt information gathering and data storage standards, so as to minimize users facing problems that arise with the use of different devices, systems and measuring systems.

Some public data custodians in South Asia still release vast amounts of data in hard copy (paper-based) form. For example, India’s Marine Fisherfolk Census of 2010 had results running into thousands of pages of data tables – they were only released on paper. That made further analysis impossible. Undaunted, a fishers’ collective mobilised some tech-savvy volunteers to create computerised spreadsheet databases.

Like many other elements of good governance, RTI’s effectiveness depends on imagination, innovation and persistence on the part of citizens. Its best results will accrue in a society and political culture where evidence and analysis are trusted. Sri Lanka is not there yet.

The road to RTI is a journey, not a destination!

ACT