RTI Sri Lanka: තොරතුරු යතුරෙන් ‍දොර විවෘත කළාට මදි!

On 21 Feb 2017, Sinhala language broadsheet newspaper Mawbima carried an article based on my recent public talk on the Right to Information (RTI) in Sri Lanka.

RTI is a key to open doors to public information. That's useful, but we must know what to do when we enter...

RTI is a key to open doors to public information. That’s useful, but we must know what to do when we enter…

ජාතික මාධ්‍ය සංසදය විසින් සංවිධානය කරන ලද ‘තොරතුරු පනතට සමාජ සංස්කෘතිය ඉක්මවිය හැකිද’ යන සංවාද සභාවේදී ප්‍රවීණ ලේඛක නාලක ගුණවර්ධන මහතා විසින් කරන ලද දේශනය ඇසුරෙනි.

තොරතුරු පනත සම්මත කර ඇති මේ අවස්ථාවේදී මේ පනතින් වැඩ ගන්නේ කොහොමද? තොරතුරු පනතට ඇති අභියෝග මොනවාද? සමාජයෙන් දේශපාලන තන්ත්‍රයෙන් නිලධාරි තන්ත්‍රයෙන් මේ පනතට ඇතිවිය හැකි ප්‍රතිරෝධ මොනවාද? අපි ඒකට කෙසේ සූදානම් විය යුතුද කියන කාරණාවලට වැඩිපුර අවධානය යොමු කරන්න අවශ්‍යයි.

අපි ලෝකයේ බහුතරයක් සිටින එක්තරා කාණ්ඩයකට ගිය අවුරුද්දේ සම්බන්ධ වුණා. ඒ තොරතුරු නීතියක් තිබෙන රටක වාසය කිරීමයි. ගිය වසරේ මැද වන විට ලෝක ජනගහනයෙන් 88%ක් ඉන්නේ යම් ආකාරයකින් නීතියෙන් තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ අයිතිය තහවුරු කරන රටකයි. ඒ වගේ රටවල් 110ක් තියෙනවා. මේ වන විට තවත් රටවල් 40ක් විතර තොරතුරු අයිතිය ලබාගැනීම සම්බන්ධව කතාබහ වෙමින් ඉන්නවා.

State of Right to Information (RTI ) World wide in 2016.

State of Right to Information (RTI ) World wide in 2016.

2017 වසරේ පෙබරවාරි 3 වැනිදා සිට තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ පනත ක්‍රියාත්මකයි. එදාම ගැසට් පත්‍රයකින් පනත ක්‍රියාත්මක කරන්න අවශ්‍ය රෙගුලාසි පිටු 26ක ගැසට් සටහනකින් ප්‍රකාශයට පත් කළා. පනත කියවනකොට පෙබ. 3 ගැසට් පත්‍රයේ ඒ නියෝග ටිකත් එක්ක තමයි පනත කියවන්න සහ පනත ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීම පිළිබඳ දැනුවත් වෙන්න ඕන. ඒක තමයි මෙහි ක්‍රමවේදය මොකක්ද කියලා සඳහන් කරලා තියෙන්නේ.

අගනුවර වගේම දිවයිනේ විවිධ පළාත්වලින් තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීම් ගැන වාර්තා වුණා. ඒ වාර්තා ට්‍රැක් කරන වෙබ් අඩවි පවා දැන් බිහිවෙලා තියෙන්නේ. ඒ වෙබ් අඩවිවලට අනුව තවමත් තොරතුරු පනත ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීමට රාජ්‍ය ආයතන සූදානම් නැහැ. තොරතුරු නිලධාරියකු නම් කරලා නැහැ. එහෙම වෙලාවට ආයතන ප්‍රධානියා තමයි තොරතුරු නිලධාරියා විදියට ක්‍රියා කළ යුත්තේ. මහජන ඉල්ලීමක් ආවහම භාරගන්න සූදානමක් තවම නැහැ කියලා වාර්තා වුණා. තවත් තැන්වලදී ඉල්ලීම් දෙන්න ගියහම ජනතාවට මේ මේසෙන් අනිත් මේසයට යන්න, මේ කාමරයෙන් අර කාමරයට යන්න කියන නොයෙක් නොයෙක් ප්‍රශ්න මතුවෙලා තිබුණා. මේ වගේ ප්‍රශ්න ක්‍රමයෙන් හදාගන්න පුළුවන් වෙයි කියලා හිතනවා. වැරැදි හොයන්නම බලාගෙන ඉන්න අයට නම් මේවා ලොකු දේවල්. ගිහින් ඔන්න තොරතුරු නීතියක් ගෙනාවා, ක්‍රියාත්මක වුණේ නැහැ. ඔන්න වැඩේ ඉවරයි කියන අයත් පහුගිය දවස්වල දැක්කා. අපි තව මාස තුනක්වත් මේ ගැන බලමු. ඒ අතරේ ජනාධිපති කාර්යාලය පවා තොරතුරු ලබා දෙන්න තවම සූදානම් නැහැ කියලා සන්ඩේ ලීඩර් පත්තරය වාර්තා කළා.

මහජනයාට ප්‍රසිද්ධියට පත් නොකෙරුණු වසර කිහිපයකට කලින් සම්පූර්ණ කර භාරදුන් කොමිෂන් සභා වාර්තා ලබාදෙන්න කියලා තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීමක් ඉදිරිපත් කරන්න ඉද්දමල්ගොඩ පියතුමා ගිහින්. ව්‍යාකූලතාවලින් පසුව ඒ ඉල්ලීම භාර අරගෙන තිබුණා. ඒ කියන්නේ සූදානම තවම හොඳ නැහැ.

කාන්තාවන් 15 දෙනෙක් දැනට කාලයක් තිස්සේ අතුරුදන් වූ තමන්ගේ පවුලේ ඥාතීන් හෝ සැමියන් ගැන කුමක් හෝ ඉල්ලා තොරතුරු ඉල්ලුම් පත්‍රයක් ගොනු කරන්නට උත්සාහ කළ බව ඉන්දියාවේ ද හින්දු පත්තරේ වාර්තා වුණා. ආණ්ඩුවේ නොයෙක් කාර්යාලවලට ගියා. ඔවුන්ට හැඟීමක් තිබුණේ නැහැ කොතැනටද ඉදිරිපත් කරන්න ඕන කියලා. අපිට ඉතිං ඉස්සර වගේම තමයි හරි හමන් උත්තරයක් ලැබුණේ නැහැ කියලා ඒ කාන්තාවන් පසුව කියලා තිබුණා.

තොරතුරු නීතිය යටතේ එහෙම තොරතුරු නොදී ඉන්න බැහැ. නිශ්චිත කාල වකවානුවකින් පසුව නොදුන්නොත් පුරවැසියන්ට ගන්න පුළුවන් ක්‍රියාමාර්ගත් තිබෙනවා.
තමන්ගේ සමීපතමයන්ගේ තොරතුරු සෙවීමේ සිට පොදු උන්නතිය පිළිබඳ තොරතුරු ඉල්ලා සිටීම දක්වා පුළුල් පරාසයක් තුළ තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීම් කරන්න පුළුවන්.

Right to Information in Sri Lanka - what to do next?

Right to Information in Sri Lanka – what to do next?

තොරතුරු නීතිය සමහරුන් යතුරකට සංසන්දනය කරනවා. යතුර අතට ලැබුණාට මදි. ‍ෙදාර ඇරීම විතරකුත් මදි. අපි ‍ෙදාර ඇරගෙන ඇතුළට ගියහම මොනවද කරන්නෙ කියන එක ගැනත් යම්කිසි අවබෝධයක්, පෙර සූදානමක් තියෙන්න ඕන. ඇතුළට යෑමේ වරම තියෙනවා. ඉන් එහාට කරන දේ මොකක්ද කියන එකයි අපට තිබෙන අභියෝගය.

මොකද පාලකයන්ගෙන් තොරතුරු ඉල්ලන සම්ප්‍රදායක් කවදාවත්ම අපේ රටේ තිබුණේ නැහැ. අපිට හිටියේ පූර්ණ බලතල සහිත රජවරු. කිසිම දෙයක් යටත්වැසියන්ට හෙළි කරන්නට කිසිම ආකාරයකින් රජවරු බැඳිලා හිටියේ නැහැ. රජුගේ භාණ්ඩාගාරයේ වියදම් මොනවාද, අන්ත–පුරයේ කාන්තාවන් කී දෙනෙක් ඉන්නවාද, යනාදී කිසිම දෙයක් අහන්න යටත්වැසියන්ට කිසිම අයිතියක් තිබුණේ නැහැ. යටත් විජිත පාලන සමයේදීත් එහෙම අවස්ථාවක් තිබුණේ නැහැ.

ඒ නිසා රජ කාලෙවත් යටත් විජිත කාලෙවත් නිදහසින් අවුරුදු 68ක් යනතුරුත් නොතිබුණු දෙයක් දැන් දීලා තියෙන්නේ. අපට ආණ්ඩුවෙන් පාලකයන්ගෙන් තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීමේ පුරුද්දක් හෝ තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීමට අරගල කිරීමේ පුරුද්දක් ඓතිහාසිකව තිබී නැහැ.

මේක සංකල්පීයව පැනිය යුතු පිම්මක්. මේ හරහා ජනතාව බලාත්මක කරන්න පුළුවන් කියන එකයි මගේ අදහස. බලාපොරොත්තු දැන්මම සුන් කරගත්තොත් කිසි වැඩක් නැහැ.

මේ වගේ අපේ ඓතිහාසික සමාජයීය සංස්කෘතික යම් යම් සීමා කිරීම් ඉක්මවා නැඟී සිටින්න ඕනෑ. ඒක අපි සමාජයක් වශයෙන් ගතයුතු උත්සාහයක්. මේකට ටිකක් දඟලන්න වෙයි. තොරතුරු අයිතිය නීතිගත වීමක් සෑහෙන්නේ නැහැ. ඒකට තොරතුරු සාක්ෂරතාවත් දියුණු කරගන්න ඕනෑ.

පුරවැසියන් ලෙස තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීම ටිකෙන් ටික වැඩි කරගැනීම කරන්න ඕනෑ. වෙන නීති වගේ නොවෙයි. මේක පුරවැසියන් විසින් පාවිච්චි කළ යුතු නීතියක්. බොහෝ නීති තිබෙන්නේ ආණ්ඩුව හා නිලධාරීන් පාවිච්චි කර නොයෙක් දේ ජනතාව මත බලෙන් හෝ කැමැත්තෙන් පටවන්න.

ඉල්ලුම් පැත්ත වැඩි කරන්න කළ හැකි දේ මොනවාද? පනත සහ පනතට අදාළ නියෝග ගැන දැනුවත් වෙන්න ඕනෑ. නොදැනුවත්ව හෝ දැනුවත්ව ඇතැම් දෙනා විසින් පතුරුවන දුර්මත තිබෙනවා පනත පාර්ලිමේන්තුගත වෙලා විවාදයට ගැනෙන කාලය තුළ මේ පනත කියවන්නේවත් නැතිව සමහර ජාතික යැයි කියාගන්නා පත්තර අමූලික බොරු මේ පනත ගැන ලිව්වා. මේ පනත ගෙනාවොත් කිසි දෙයක් ලියන්න බැරිවෙයි. චිත්‍ර කතා පළකරන්න වෙයි කියලා කිව්වා. ඒ වගේ දුර්මත දුරුකරන්න ඕනෑ.

මේ නීතිය භාෂා තුනෙන්ම ලියැවිලා තියෙන්නේ. පිටපතක මිල රු. 21යි. රජයේ ප්‍රකාශක කාර්යාංශයෙන් ගන්න පුළුවන්. ජනමාධ්‍ය අමාත්‍යාංශයේ වෙබ් අඩවියෙන් නොමිලයේම භාගත කරන්න පුළුවනි.

තොරතුරු නීතිය සම්මත කරගත් අසල්වැසි රටවල අත්දැකීම්ද අපට යොදා ගන්න පුළුවන්. විශේෂයෙන්ම ඉන්දියාව ගැන සඳහන් කරන්න ඕනෑ. 2005 තමයි ඉන්දියාව ජාතික වශයෙන් තොරතුරු පනත සම්මත කරගත්තේ. නීතිය සම්මත කරගත්තාට නීති භාවිතයේ අඩුපාඩු තිබෙනවා. බොහෝ පුරවැසියන් මේ නීතිය ගැන කැමැත්තක් නැති බවත්, තොරතුරු ලබාගත් පමණින් එයින් වැඩ ගන්න හා ඒවා තේරුම් ගන්න හැකියාවත් ඒ රටවල තවම ඇත්තේ සීමිත බව දකුණු ආසියාවේ තොරතුරු නීතිය ගැන ආසියා පදනම කළ විමර්ශනයකින් පැහැදිලි වෙනවා.

තොරතුරු ඉල්ලනතුරු නොසිට සෑම පොදු අධිකාරියක්ම ස්වේච්ඡාවෙන් ඒවා ප්‍රකාශයට පත් කිරීමේ සිද්ධාන්තය ඉන්දියාවේ ක්‍රියාත්මක වෙනවා.

ඉන්දියාවේ පාසල් දරුවන් පවා තොරතුරු නීතිය පාවිච්චි කරනවා. ශිෂ්‍යාධාර ප්‍රමාද වන්නේ ඇයි? පාසල් බස්වල සේවා අඩාල වෙන්නේ ඇයි? මදුරු උවදුරට පිළියම් නොකරන්නේ ඇයි? යනාදී ප්‍රශ්නවලට විසඳුම් සොයන්න අවුරුදු 8-9 ළමයින් පවා තොරතුරු නීතිය යොදා ගන්නවා.

Nurturing the demand side of Right to Information (RTI) in Sri Lanka: What can be done?

Nurturing the demand side of Right to Information (RTI) in Sri Lanka: What can be done?

What more can be done to promote RTI demand side in Sri Lanka - ideas by Nalaka Gunawardene

What more can be done to promote RTI demand side in Sri Lanka – ideas by Nalaka Gunawardene

ඉන්දියාවේ ජනතාවගේ තොරතුරු අයිතිය සඳහා වූ ජාතික ව්‍යාපාරයේ ආදි කර්තෘවරයා වන සේකර් සිං මහතා අපේ රටට තොරතුරු අයිති අරගලයේ පාඩම් කිහිපයක් ලබා දුන්නා.

තොරතුරු අයිතිය දේශපාලන යථාර්ථය සමඟ සමීපව බැඳී තිබෙන බැවින් එය වෙනම වෙන් නොකිරීම වගේම ඔවුන් හා අපි කියලා දේශපාලකයන් හා නිලධාරීන් පැත්තකට දාලා ජනතාව එක් පැත්තකට දාන්න එපා කියලා ඔහු කියනවා. ප්‍රගතිශීලී, ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදී පියවර සඳහා පෙනී සිටින අය සමඟ මේ ගමනක් යෑම, හොඳ නීති සම්මත කර ඒවා නැත්තා සේ කටයුතු කිරීමට දකුණු ආසියාවේ දේශපාලකයන් ඉතා හොඳින් දන්නා බැවින් ඒ අවකාශය දෙන්න එපා කියලත් ඔහු කියනවා.

දිගටම මහජන බලපෑම් කිරීම, තොරතුරු නීතිය මහජන සුබසාධනයට යොදාගන්නේ කොහොමද යන්න කලාපීය වශයෙන් අත්දැකීම්වලින් නිලධාරීන් දැනුවත් කිරීම, තොරතුරු හා සිද්ධීන් අධ්‍යයන කිරීම අත්දැකීම් සියලුම දෙනා සමඟ බෙදා ගැනීම, සමාජ සාධාරණත්වයට ලැබෙන තල්ලුවක් ලෙස තොරතුරු අයිතිය ඉදිරිපත් කිරීම, හැකි තරම් සහයෝගයෙන් ප්‍රශ්න විසඳන තැනට යොමු කිරීම, ආර්.අයි.ටී. කියන දේ සියලුම ක්ෂේත්‍රවලට අදාළ කරගත හැකි පොදු මෙවලමක් ලෙස දැකීම, තොරතුරු නීතිය පාවිච්චි කිරීම ගැන සියලුම සිවිල් සංවිධාන ජනතාව දැනුවත් කිරීම, රාජ්‍ය ආයතන ප්‍රගාමි තොරතුරු හෙළිදරව් කරනවාද යන්න නිරතුරු විමසිල්ලෙන් සිටීම වගේම තොරතුරු අයිතිය ගැන දුර්මත පැතිරුවත් ඒවාට උත්තර දෙන්න ලෑස්ති වෙන්න කියලත් සිං මහතා කියනවා.

තොරතුරු යතුරෙන් ‍දොර විවෘත කළාට මදි! Nalaka Gunawardene on Right to Information (RTI) challenges in Sri Lanka: Mawbima newspaper. 21 Feb 2017

තොරතුරු යතුරෙන් ‍දොර විවෘත කළාට මදි! Nalaka Gunawardene on Right to Information (RTI) challenges in Sri Lanka: Mawbima newspaper. 21 Feb 2017

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):

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

[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

[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] Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust in Sri Lanka’s Media

Text of an op-ed essay published in the Sunday Observer on 10 July 2016:

Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust

in Sri Lanka’s Media

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s government and its media industry need to embark on wide-ranging media sector reforms, says a major new study released recently.

Such reforms are needed at different levels – in government policies, laws and regulations, as well as within the media industry and profession. Media educators and trainers also have a key role to play in raising professional standards in our media, the study says.

Recent political changes have opened a window of opportunity which needs to be seized urgently by everyone who desires a better media in Sri Lanka, urges the study report, titled Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka.

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

The report was released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) at a Colombo meeting attended by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Minister of Mass Media.

The report is the outcome of a 14-month-long research and consultative process. Facilitated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, it engaged over 500 media professionals, owners, managers, academics, relevant government officials and members of various media associations and trade unions. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations. I served as is overall editor.

“The country stands at a crossroads where political change has paved the way for strengthening safeguards for freedom of expression (FOE) and media freedom while enhancing the media’s own professionalism and accountability,” the report notes.

Politicians present at the launch could only agree.

“The government is willing to do its part for media freedom and media reforms. But are you going to do yours?” he asked the dozens of editors, journalists and media managers present. There were no immediate answers.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of 'Rebuilding Public Trust' report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’ report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Whither Media Professionalism?

The report acknowledges how, since January 2015, the new government has taken several positive steps. These include: reopening investigations into some past attacks on journalists; ending the arbitrary and illegal blocking of political websites done by the previous regime; and recognising access to information as a fundamental right in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (after the report was released, the Right to Information Act has been passed by Parliament, which enables citizens to exercise this right).

These and other measures have helped improve Sri Lanka’s global ranking by 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking). It went up from a dismal 165 in 2015 index (which reflected conditions that prevailed in 2014) to a slightly better 141 in the latest index.

Compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media rights advocacy group, the Index reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens (citizens using the web) enjoy in a country, and the efforts made by its government to respect and nurture this freedom.

Sri Lanka, with a score of 44.96, has now become 141st out of 180 countries assessed. While we have moved a bit further away from the bottom, we are still in the company of Burma (143), Bangladesh (144) and South Sudan (140) – not exactly models of media freedom.

Clearly, much more needs be done to improve FOE and media freedom in Sri Lanka – and not just by the government. Media owners and managers also bear a major responsibility to create better working conditions for journalists and other media workers. For example, by paying better wages to journalists, and allowing trade union rights (currently denied in many private media groups, though enjoyed in all state media institutions).

Rebuilding Public Trust acknowledges these complexities and nuances: freedom from state interference is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better and pluralistic media.

It also points out that gradual improvement in media freedom must now to be matched by an overall upping of media’s standards and ethical conduct.

By saying so, the report turns the spotlight on the media itself — an uncommon practice in our media. It says that only a concerted effort by the entire media industry and all its personnel can raise professional standards and ethical conduct of Sri Lanka’s media.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, an experienced journalist turned media trainer who was part of the report’s editorial team (and has since become the Director General of the Department of Information). “Sri Lanka’s media freedom has gone up since January 2015, but can we honestly say there has been much (or any) improvement in our media’s level of professionalism?” he asks.

Media in Crisis

Tackling the dismally low professionalism on a priority basis is decisive for the survival of our media which points fingers at all other sections of society but rarely engages in self reflection.

Rebuilding Public Trust comes out at a time when Sri Lanka’s media industry and profession face many crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements. Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today.

The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”

Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics.

Unfortunately, their good work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.

For example, much of what passes for political commentary in national newspapers is nothing more than gossip. Indeed, some newspapers now openly brand content as such!

Similarly, research for this study found how most Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers cater to the nationalism of their respective readerships instead of promoting national integrity.

Such drum beating and peddling of cheap thrills might temporarily boost market share, but these practices ultimately erode public trust in the media as a whole. Surveys show fewer media consumers actually believing that they read, hear or watch.

One result: younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for obtaining their information as well as for speaking their minds. Newspaper circulations are known to be in decline, even though there are no independently audited figures.

If the mainstream media is to reverse these trends and salvage itself, a major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed, and fast. Newspaper, radio and TV companies also need clarity and a sense of purpose on how to integrate digital platforms into their operations (and not as mere add-ons).

L to R - Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

L to R – Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms – Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Recommendations for Reforms

The report offers a total of 101 specific recommendations, which are sorted under five categories. While many are meant for the government, a number of important recommendations are directed at media companies, journalists’ and publishers’ associations, universities, media training institutions, and development funding agencies.

“We need the full engagement of all stakeholders in building a truly free, independent and public interest minded pluralistic media system as a guarantor of a vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka,” says Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former director of UNESCO’s Communication Development Division, who served as overall advisor for our research and editorial process.

In fact, this assessment has used an internationally accepted framework developed by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Known as the Media Development Indicators (MDIs), this helps identify strengths and weaknesses, and propose evidence-based recommendations on how to enhance media freedom and media pluralism in a country. Already, two dozen countries have used this methodology.

The Sri Lanka study was coordinated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, a multistakeholder alliance comprising the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media; Department of Mass Media at University of Colombo; Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI); Strategic Alliance for Research and Development (SARD); and International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark.

We carried out a consultative process that began in March 2015. Activities included a rapid assessment discussed at the National Summit for Media Reforms in May 2015 (attended by over 200), interviews with over 40 key media stakeholders, a large sample survey, brainstorming sessions, and a peer review process that involved over 250 national stakeholders and several international experts.

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 - (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 – (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Here is the summary of key recommendations:

  • Law review and revision: The government should review all existing laws which impose restrictions on freedom of expression with a view to amending them as necessary to ensure that they are fully consistent with international human rights laws and norms.
  • Right to Information (RTI): The RTI law should be implemented effectively, leading to greater transparency and openness in the public sector and reorienting how government works.
  • Media ownership: Adopt new regulations making it mandatory for media ownership details to be open, transparent and regularly disclosed to the public.
  • Media regulation: Repeal the Press Council Act 5 of 1973, and abolish the state’s Press Council. Instead, effective self-regulatory arrangements should be made ideally by the industry and covering both print and broadcast media.
  • Broadcast regulation: New laws are needed to ensure transparent broadcast licensing; more rational allocation of frequencies; a three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasters; and obligations on all broadcasters to be balanced and impartial in covering politics and elections. An independent Broadcasting Authority should be set up.
  • Digital broadcasting: The government should develop a clear plan and timeline for transitioning from analogue to digital broadcasting in television as soon as possible.
  • Restructuring state media: The three state broadcasters should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters with guaranteed editorial independence. State-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) should be operated independently with editorial freedom.
  • Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on any media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for legality after publication. Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended.
  • Blocking of websites: The state should not limit online content or social media activities in ways that contravene freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions.
  • Privacy and surveillance: Privacy of all citizens and others should be respected by the state and the media. There should be strict limits to the state surveillance of private individuals and entities’ phone and other electronic communications.
  • Media education and literacy: Journalism and mass media education courses at tertiary level should be reviewed and updated to meet current industry needs and consumption patterns. A national policy is needed for improving media literacy and cyber literacy.

Full report in English is available at: https://goo.gl/5DYm9i

Sinhala and Tamil versions are under preparation and will be released shortly.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene served as overall editor of the new study, and also headed one of the four working groups that guided the process. He tweets as: @NalakaG