News reports surfaced yesterday that President Maithripala Sirisena, with the backing of the Cabinet, has informed all Ministers that decisions and memoranda not falling within expected categories under the Right to Information(RTI) Act have to be made available to any citizen upon request.
It was also reported that an Information Officer (IO) and a Designated Officer (DO) have been appointed for the Cabinet of Ministers in keeping with the regulations in the RTI act that was operationalised in February this year. Until now, Cabinet decisions were considered strictly confidential, with just the relevant ministry secretaries and a handful of others being privy to such information presumably on a need-to-know basis. The implementation of the RTI regulations has, it appears, made current Cabinet decisions and memoranda accessible to the wider citizenry: A development that will no doubt see mixed reactions, at least in the short term.
Concerns have already been raised in some quarters that ongoing cabinet memoranda being subject to RTI regulations could result in analysis on matters of importance (particularly in sensitive areas such as economic policy) not being presented to Cabinet in writing. One activist - a strong advocate of freedom of information - even cautioned that transparency in political deliberations could prevent frank exchange, resulting in poorer policy.
If, however, the Government can figure out a way around these dangers, the decision to give people access to the all-important Cabinet decisions - something that has hitherto been shrouded in secrecy - can only be a good thing. Since the RTI Act was operationalised in February, this newspaper has been highlighting the progresses made and the “baby steps” that have been taken in the right direction, and, if the above concerns can be addressed convincingly, this too shall be a welcome chapter to the country’s RTI success story.
In addition to this, a majority of public authorities barring a few, it is heartening to note, have appointed information officers and designated officers to meet their RTI obligations. Unfortunately, however, a bulk of the RTI requests being filed so far has been by civil society actors or organisations with some sociopolitical acumen. To take advantage of the benefits afforded to the citizenry by the Act, and for RTI to be truly effective, all members of the public from all walks of life need to know how they can put it good use.
Thankfully, some people are already finding unique ways to use the legislation. Twelve women filed applications at government offices in Batticaloa in February seeking information about family members who went missing during the war. It was a remarkable effort to use RTI to push for answers about the disappeared.
Assisted by a community worker in the area, the women attempted to file applications under the RTI Act as it came into effect last Friday (3) at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Prisons Department, the Kachcheri or District Secretariat and the office of the Eastern Province DIG and the office of the Batticaloa DIG, all situated in the eastern town of Batticaloa.
It is hoped that this momentum continues and society and polity become more and more open.