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
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.