Sri Lankans and their right to know

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By 2017-09-24

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Ceylon Today Features

 

The world recognizes 28 September as the International Right to Know Day. This time around it is the first such day that Sri Lanka celebrates after putting her very own Right To Information (RTI) Act into effect. Effective from 03 February this year, the Act came with promises of a more transparent government and the active participation of the general public in governance.

It has not yet been a full year since the Act came into effect but nevertheless Sri Lanka, as a country, has evidently achieved some major milestones with regards to its policies towards transparent governance.

Third best country in the world
The Right To Information rating programme, founded by Access Info Europe (AIE) and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), takes RTI laws in 102 countries into consideration and grades every country in a point system with the highest possible being 150 points. While countries such as Belgium, Germany and Austria remain in the bottom of the list, Sri Lanka ranks third with 131 points behind only to Serbia and Mexico.

Does this mean Sri Lanka is doing exceptionally well despite having a young RTI law? Director of National Media Centre, Jagath Liyanarachchi believes that the ranking might not be a clear reflection of how well information is accessed by the general public. "The ranking shows how strong the Act is. It does not clearly show how well the general public is benefited by the Act. That depends on various facts such as attitude of officials, knowledge of both officials and the general public and facilities available" says Liyanarachchi.

The rating programme takes seven different sections into consideration according to which each country is graded. The analysis has shown vast room for improvement as 62% of all countries score in the mid range. One of the trends the RTI rating system has identified is that the top scoring countries have a tendency to possess relatively younger RTI laws which is true in Sri Lanka's case.
11 out of the bottom 20 are from Europe due to old European laws being more limited in scope and having weaker appeals mechanisms.

Bold and challenging
Although the Act has recently been passed, the discussion about the need for such an Act emerged as far back as 1994.
It was the Media and Civil Society Organizations who first initiated the move back then and despite taking so long, the Act was passed on 24 June last year with amendments from both the opposition and the government without a Parliament vote. "Both the government's and the opposition's determination in passing the Act is admirable.

During the two-day debate, none of the political parties opposed the Act and raised voice only to strengthen the Act. In the Act itself, it mentions that the Act should be put it into full effect within a year but the government took a bold decision to do so within six months which has created some challenges along the way," says Liyanarachchi.

According to Liyanarachchi facilities and technology play a big part in progress with the Act. Some government facilities even in Colombo, let alone some rural Divisional Secretariats, lack facilities and technology to produce a fast and efficient information service.

So far so good
According to the Director General of the RTI Commission Piyathissa Ranasinghe, an average of 1,000 to 1,200 applications requesting information have been submitted to government institutes monthly since 3 February. "Out of all these requests, about 75% are from the general public. A majority of those requests have been fulfilled and if not, they come to the RTI Commission in the manner of an appeal. So far only about 160 appeals have come in the Commission's way. The Commission has examined 70 of such appeals and 20 of them were granted the right to information. The rest of the appeals too are being examined currently" says Ranasinghe.
A majority of the requests so far have come from the Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western provinces. Education seems to be the sector that most are interested in, evident by the majority of applications submitted requesting educational information. Other than that, the general public have shown interest in knowing information about roads, land and governing institutes such as Provincial Councils and Divisional Secretariats.

The procedure
A citizen can request information from a government institution in many forms, be that oral, written or electronic. The Information Officer is bound to reply within 14 days whether the information could be provided or not. A certain amount is charged for the service and the information should be provided within another 14 days after the payment has been made. This means an individual should normally be able to acquire information within at most, a month.

If the requested information is too hard to find or too large to compile within 14 days, the Information Officer is given another additional three-week period. If the officer is unable to produce results even within that period of time, the officer should inform the Head of the Institute. The Head of the Institute again gets another three weeks to fulfil the request and if not, the request gets sent to the RTI Commission in the manner of an appeal.

Exemplary among other countries
When compared with other countries, especially countries of the same region, Sri Lanka's RTI Act promotes more transparency. "In other countries, the same sorts of Acts list many institutes of whose information is off limits to the general public. Our RTI Act lists not institutes but only 21 instances where information cannot be granted. Some other countries have hundreds of such instances listed" explains Ranasinghe.

"Sri Lanka has the most amount of information requests per capita. India, a country with a population of 1.3 billion had only 50,000 applications submitted within the first year. In Sri Lanka where the population is only 20 million, we anticipate it to be 12,000 applications. Within six months, we put the Act into full effect, the least taken by any Asian country.
India took 18 months, Bangladesh took about five years and Bhutan is yet to put the Act into effect despite passing it some six years ago" said Ranasinghe comparing Sri Lanka with other neighbouring countries.

A change in attitudes
Liyanarachchi believes that while it is vital to have such Acts in effect to ensure democracy, it might take some time before Sri Lanka can properly benefit from it. "Our attitudes need to be changed. We were in the habit of concealing information for so long that it is hard to make the switch in such a short time.

Some instances have been reported where Information Officers were questioned by their seniors for revealing information. Not that there isn't any progress. We are progressing but slowly. It will be so unless we change our attitudes" opined Liyanarachchi.
"The success of the Act depends on four facts; the public should demand information more, government officials should adapt to an information giving culture, proactive disclosure policies should be made and the public should use the acquired information for securing their rights. In order to do so, we are carrying out island-wide public awareness programmes and training sessions for all the Information Officers in the country which is about 3,200" said Ranasinghe.

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