In June 2016, Sri Lanka became the 108th country in the world to pass a law allowing citizens to demand information from the government. After a preparatory period of six months, citizens were allowed to exercise their newly granted Right to Information (RTI) by filing information applications from February 2017 onward.
Just over a year later, the results are a mixed bag of successes, challenges and frustrations. There have been formidable teething problems – some sorted out by now, while others continue to slow down the new law’s smooth operation.
On the ‘supply side’ of RTI, several thousand ‘public authorities’ at central, provincial and local government level had to get ready to practise the notion of ‘open government’. This includes the all government ministries, departments, state corporations, other stator bodies and companies that are wholly or majority state owned. Despite training programmes and administrative circulars, there remain some gaps in officials’ attitudes, capacity and readiness to process citizens’ RTI applications.
To be sure, we should not expect miracles in one year after we have had 25 centuries of closed government under all the Lankan monarchs, colonial rulers and post-independence governments. RTI is a major conceptual and operational ‘leap’ for some public authorities and officials who have hidden or denied information rather than disclosed or shared it with the public.
Owing to this mindset, some officials have been trying to play hide-and-seek with RTI applications. Others are grudgingly abiding by the letter of the law — but not its spirit. These challenges place a greater responsibility on active citizens to pursue their RTI applications indefatigably.
During the first year of operation, the independent RTI Commission had received a little over 400 appeals from persistent citizens who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. In a clear majority of cases heard so far, the Commission has ordered disclosure of information that was initially declined. These rulings are sending a clear message to all public authorities: RTI is not a choice, but a legal imperative. Fall in line, or else…
To ensure all public authorities comply with this law, it is vital to sustain citizen pressure. This is where the ‘demand side’ of RTI needs a lot more work. Unlike most other laws of the land that government uses, RTI is a rare law that citizens have to exercise – government only responds. Experience across Asia and elsewhere shows that the more RTI is used by people, the sharper and stronger it becomes.
It is hard to assess current public awareness levels on RTI without doing a large sample survey (one is being planned). However, there is growing anecdotal evidence to indicate that more Lankans have heard about RTI even if they are not yet clear on specifics.
But we still have plenty to do on the demand side: citizens need to see RTI as a tool for solving their local level problems – both private and public grievances – and be motivated to file more RTI applications. For this, they must overcome a historical deference towards government, and start demanding answers more vociferously.
Citizens who have been denied clear or any answers to their pressing problems – on missing persons, land rights, subsidies or public spending – are using RTI as an additional tool. We need to sustain momentum. RTI is a marathon, not a sprint.
Even though some journalists and editors were at the forefront in advocating for RTI in Sri Lanka for over two decades, the Lankan media as a whole is yet to grasp RTI’s potential.
Promisingly, some younger journalists have been producing impressive public interest stories – on topics as varied as disaster responses, waste management and human rights abuses – based on what they uncovered with their RTI applications. One of them, working for a Sinhala language daily, has filed over 40 RTI applications and experienced a success rate of around 70 per cent.
Meanwhile, some civil society groups are helping ordinary citizens to file RTI applications. A good example is the Vavuniya-based youth group, the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), that spearheads a campaign to submit RTI applications across Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, seeking information on private land that has been occupied by the military during the civil war and beyond. Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, is running RTI clinics in different parts of the country with Transparency International Sri Lanka to equip citizens to exercise this new right.
The road to open government is a bumpy one, but there is no turning back on this journey. RTI in Sri Lanka may not yet have opened the floodgates of public information, but the dams are slowly but surely breached. Watch this space.
Disclosure: The writer works with both government and civil society groups intraining and promoting RTI. These views are his own.
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.
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.
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.