[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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Can Right to Information (RTI) Transform Lankan Society? Yes, but we have much to do…

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s newly operational RTI law. 15 February 2017 (Photo courtesy Lanka News Web)

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s newly operational RTI law. 15 February 2017 (Photo courtesy Lanka News Web)

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law became operational on 3 February 2017. Marking the culmination of an advocacy effort sustained by social activists and journalists for over 20 years, the new law enables citizens to ask for, and be assured of information held in all government entities (as well as some private and non-profit entities).

The law being new, there still are apprehensions, misconceptions as well as skepticism on whether such transparency could work in a semi-feudal society like Sri Lanka’s.

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.

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

L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Priyantha Wedamulla and Narada Bakmeewewa  (Photo courtesy Lanka News Web)

In my presentation, I said the right to ask questions from rulers is very new, and there is no historical precedent for it in Sri Lanka. Subjects had no rights whatsoever and could not ask any questions from the absolute monarchs of Lanka who ruled the island for 20 centuries. The Portuguese, Dutch and British did not grant that right in their colony of Ceylon, and neither did any of our own governments elected since independence in 1948.

Citizens are typically intimidated by politicians and officials, and unless we overcome this wide-spread subservience, we cannot derive benefits from RTI, I argued. The new law gives an unprecedented right to all 21 million Lankans – of all walks of life and of all ages – but to exercise it well we need a political vision, tenacity and imagination.

Nurturing these qualities is the big challenge on the DEMAND side of RTI in Sri Lanka, now that the government has done an appreciable amount of work on the SUPPLY side – by keeping its 2015 election pledge and giving us both the fundamental right to information (through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution) and the law that operationalises it (Right to Information Act No 12 of 2016).

I quoted Dr Rajesh Tandon, founder and head of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives in India on the Indian experience of RTI. Since the RTI law was introduced in 2005, India has seen a marked improvement in governance, dissemination of information and involvement of civil society in the governance process, he says.

At the same time, he points out that some challenges remain at the implementation level. Certain states in India have been more active in creating a culture of information sharing and open government. 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.” (Watch my full interview with Rajesh Tandon here: https://vimeo.com/118544161).

Sunil Handunnetti, JVP (opposition) Member of Parliament, speaks during RTI Forum in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Sunil Handunnetti, JVP (opposition) Member of Parliament, speaks during RTI Forum in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

I also summarized India’s RTI lessons shared with me recently by Shekhar Singh, Founder of India’s National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and a former member of the State Council for RTI, New Delhi. Chief among them:

  • Be well aware of political realities and complexities when promoting RTI
  • Don’t get into ‘Us and Them’ style confrontation with govt (reality always more nuanced)
  • Work with progressive elements (MPs, officials, advisors) within govt who share RTI ideals
  • South Asian politicians know they can pass many laws and then ignore them: only sustained citizen pressure will make them implement RTI fully
  • Document how RTI has led to social justice and social development in other South Asian countries, and the positive uses of RTI in Sri Lanka from now onward; Share these widely with officials, politicians and civil society activists to inspire them.
  • RTI cuts across all sectors (education, health, child rights, labour rights, environment, etc.): NGOs, trade unions and other elements of civil society need to see value of RTI-generated info for their own work and the greater good
  • Civil society should not isolate RTI as a separate movement. Integrate RTI into all public interest work in all sectors.
  • Insist that ALL layers, arms and branches of govt obey the RTI law fully (and use appeal process when any public authority is not cooperating)

Here is one news report on the event, by Lanka News Web (in Sinhala)

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

Part of audience at public forum on Sri Lanka's RTI Law, held in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Part of audience at public forum on Sri Lanka’s RTI Law, held in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Discussing Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI)

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Dr Ranga Kalansooriya (left) and Nalaka Gunawardene (right) discuss Sri Lanka's Right to Information law with host Prasanna Jayanththi: 27 Sep 2016

Siyatha TV CIVIL show: Dr Ranga Kalansooriya (left) and Nalaka Gunawardene (right) discuss Sri Lanka’s Right to Information law with host Prasanna Jayanththi: 27 Sep 2016

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.

In the final part, Ranga and I also discussed aspects of Sri Lanka’s media sector reforms, which are stemming from a major new study that he and I were both associated with: Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016).

 

Part 1:

 

Part 2:

 

Part 3: