Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere addressing the media yesterday in Colombo. Also present (from left) are TISL, RTI Manager Sankhitha Gunaratne and Deshodaya and Sarvodaya National Organizer Nishantha Preethiraj – Pic by Ruwan Walpola
By Chathuri Dissanayake
Transparency international Sri Lanka (TISL) yesterday said that the Government was not fully equipped to fulfil its obligation of providing the public with requested information due to a lack of awareness among state employees, despite the Right to Information Act coming into force last Friday.
Recounting its experience on the process of filling RTI applications at four major Government institutions, TISL called on the Government to improve RTI knowledge among state officials while emphasising the need to create awareness among the public on their right to create a “demand for RTI”.
“It is the responsibility of the State to drive the demand for RTI. The Government should ensure that citizens know of their right to information,” TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeysekere said.
However, when TISL approached six key institutions to file RTI applications last week, the responses received varied from confusion to anger directed at the individuals who were requesting information.
According to TISL RTI Project Manager Sankhitha Guneratne, the Health Ministry refused to accept TISL’s application for information on the Chronic Kidney Disease, while the Presidential Secretariat and Employee Provident Fund office did not have an Information Officer appointed.
Applications for information filed with Sri Lanka Customs were met with hostility, she said, although she appreciated the fact that the institution had taken steps to appoint an Information Officer.
“Coming upon our question requesting the internal regulations of Customs, he lost his temper, stating vehemently that we could not request such information unless we had a personal interest in the matter. We calmly stated that this was not so. He then took us to a more senior official in indignation at our ‘unfair’ request. The next official, to his credit, said that providing information was something they intended to do anyway, under a trade facilitation agreement, but that it may have been unfair for us to request such information on the first day of RTI,” she told Daily FT, adding that the request was nevertheless accepted by Customs.
Despite the Government’s pledge to create an information culture, the newly set up commission has been allocated only Rs. 30 million by the Treasury, which the TISL believes to be grossly inadequate to carry out the awareness campaigns and other training programs needed to achieve a proper mechanism for the dissemination of information.
“TISL discussed with the Finance Minister on budget allocations before the Budget was presented. We were able to ensure that there was a separate budget lined up for Open Government activities, under which RTI is the only activity listed,” Obeysekere said, adding that no discussions have taken place post-Budget.
However, Obeysekere highlighted that they were encouraged by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s statement that the RTI Commission may request additional funds through supplementary allocations.
To create awareness amongst the public, the TISL and Sarwodaya movement yesterday launched a program to disseminate information on RTI. They will also establish five information centres in Ratnapura, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Colombo and Matara to provide the public with the information and guidance needed. The program also has a RTI bus which will operate a mobile service to give out information and aid applicants.