By Ashwin Hemmathagama – Our Lobby Correspondent
In what was a long awaited victory for bipartisanship and political consensus, the two day Right to Information debate and a two decade long struggle to uphold the citizen’s right to know, came to an end yesterday, with the legislation being passed unanimously in Parliament, with amendments.
The Right to Information Act, was passed by the Sri Lankan Parliament without vote.
The newly enacted RTI Act, which forms one of the key pledges in the manifesto of the UNF which leads the ruling coalition, seeks to increase access to Information, to specify grounds on which access may be denied, to establish the Right to Information Commission, to appoint Information Officers and to set out the procedure and matters connected with it.
The Act, which is the sole responsibility of the Ministry of the Mass Media in terms of effective implementation is expected to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities. By increasing access to information about governance, the Right to Information law will enable Sri Lankan citizens to more fully participate in public life, shed light on corruption and promote accountability and good governance.
Tamil National Alliance MP M.A. Sumanthiran moving the second day of the debate identified RTI as an important watershed in the country’s history of democratic reforms. Recalling the attempts to legislate on this important democratic facet over the past two decades, Sumanthiran said the Sri Lanka Law Commission presented the first draft of the Freedom of Information Bill in 1996.
“The Law Commission drafted this bill in response to the clamour and attempts to grant right to information through statute. Unfortunately, it was never presented to Parliament. But in 2002, again there was a bipartisan effort to introduce the freedom of information law. A bill was drafted and received the Cabinet approval in 2004. However, with the sudden change of Government that effort was also stultified. In 2011, the present Speaker Karu Jayasuriya brought in a private member’s bill, which was the 2003 bill draft done by the United National Party. Initially the Government of the day persuaded the member to withdraw the bill with assurance to bring a Government Bill. But having given that assurance, that Government didn’t take any effort to present a Bill. Therefore, in 2011 June Karu Jayasuriya reintroduced his Bill, which was defeated with 97 members voting against. Only 34 members voted for that Bill,” said MP Sumanthiran who added that he was happy to see that several of those who had opposed the Bill then, were now with the present government supporting the RTI which provides access to information.
Subject to the provisions of section 5 of this Act, every citizen has a right of access to information, which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority.
However, a request for access to information shall be refused under a few circumstances. These include Information related to personal information devoid of any public interest, defence matters of the state, confidential details on international agreements, information which might harm the economy of Sri Lanka, trade secrets, medical records, communication between a professional and a public authority which is not permitted to be disclosed, information which might hamper detection of any crime, information which would be in contempt of court, information that would infringe the privileges of Parliament and information which may be harmful to the integrity of an examination conducted by the Department of Examination.
Minister of Special Assignments Dr. Sarath Amunugama joining the debate highlighted the impact that RTI will have on the economy and finance. “Right to information focuses on financial corruption on the way to development. The Global Financial Integrity Report found developing countries and emerging economies lost due to illicit financial flows of $7.8 trillion during 2004 – 2013. With the illicit outflows increasing at an average rate of 6.5% per annum, nearly twice as fast as the global GDP. Today developing countries invest monies from different sources. Clause 9 of this Bill ensures the disclosure of all information before the commencement of a project. So, we need to employ suitable officers with specific knowledge to the Commission and to the posts of Information Officers.”
Ministries, departments, public corporations, local authorities, non-governmental organisations that are substantially funded by the government, higher educational institutions, courts and tribunals are to provide access to information and maintain records in electronic formats according to the provisions of the Act, making room for cyber expansion.
As per the provisions in the RTI Act a body identified as the “Right to Information Commission” will be established. The Commission shall consist of five persons appointed by the President upon the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. One person each will be nominated by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, organisations of publishers, editors and media persons and other civil society organisations. Persons who are distinguished in public life with proven knowledge, experience and eminence in law, governance, public administration, management will be appointed to this Commission. The Commission shall monitor the performance of public authorities and information officers.
Extending his undivided support for the RTI, Chief Opposition Whip, JVP MP Anura Dissanayake said: “People have the right to monitor and evaluate things happening in public institutions. There was an era where information was kept away from the parliament. This law provides the path necessary for the public to obtain information. We lobbied for this change.”
According to the Act every public authority should appoint Information Officers. These officers are to deal with requests for information. Any citizen who is desirous of obtaining any information is to make a request in writing to the appropriate information officer. The information officer is to respond as soon as possible, make a decision either to provide the information requested or to reject the request. Where a request is refused, the information officer must inform the citizen who made the request, the grounds on which the request is refused. Any citizen who is dissatisfied with a decision of an information officer is entitled to appeal to the Commission. A citizen or public authority who is aggrieved by the Commission may appeal against such decision to the Court of Appeal.