Sri Lanka’s journey towards transparency will hopefully make a quantum leap when the Right to Information (RTI) Bill is tabled in Parliament next week. However, there are deep concerns the Bill itself as well as its implementation need to be made more open and progressive for it to have lasting impact.
For starters the latest draft of the RTI Act has not been released to the public even though it has done the rounds among provincial politicians. The whole point of RTI and its success in dozens of countries around the world including neighbor India is the strong consultative process at the core of the drafting process. The more invested people, politicians and civil society is in the bill the more it will be used, which after all is the whole point.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative releasing a missive ahead of the Bill reaching parliament pointed out that a slew of other measures need to be considered to provide more depth to the legislation. In particular the RTI Commission proposed to be set up under the RTI law was seen as “virtually toothless” with no power to impose any sanctions on anybody for non-compliance. The RTI Commission will not be able to impose its writ and champion the cause of transparency in the absence of powers to impose sanctions.
Under Clause 5(1) the Attorney General’s Office has included an exemption to protect its communication with Government. This is a blanket exemption which is not in tune with international best practice standards. Appointing the head of the RTI commission and removal are both given to the Constitutional Council, which could cause conflicts of interest. Selection of members must also be broab based so all stakeholders can have access to the commission.
In addition, the commission should work all working days rather than meeting once a month, as presently mandated, since complaints will not be processed fast enough. Decisions made by the line minister should also be open for parliament debate and amendment to improve the power of the commission.
The same clause in the bill states trade secrets and intellectual property (IPR) related information may be disclosed in public interest but only by a public authority – the power to direct such disclosure must also be given to the RTI Commission as they are an appellate body under the RTI law.
All exemptions are not subject to a sunset clause of ten years which means that some of the exemptions will be applicable eternally. The international best practice standard is to disclose exempt information when it is no longer sensitive and such disclosure will not harm any public interest. The same has to be extended to trade negotiations, especially in a climate where the Government has expressed its intention of engaging with nearly a dozen countries to liberalise the economy.
Proactive information disclosure categories are too limited in the Draft Bill, insists the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. It is advocated they must be expanded to include all categories mentioned in the RTI laws of Bangladesh, Khyberpakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, Mexico and India.
The list of changes may seem idealistic but the whole aim of RTI is to raise standards of accountability and for such legislation to be really meaningful they have to be effectively built and implemented. If not it will be just another law made by politicians for politicians.