Raises concerns over “toothless” RTI Commission and exemption clauses
By Shiran Illanperuma
Ahead of tabling of the Right to Information (RTI) Bill in Parliament today, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) sent a letter to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to raise their concerns over clauses in the Bill’s draft and to appeal for its release into the public domain.
The letter sent last week reads: “We urge you to take steps immediately to open up a consultative process through which Parliament may receive comments and suggestions from the people about what they would like to see improved in the Bill. For this to happen, it is absolutely essential that the Draft Bill itself be placed in the public domain before it is tabled in Parliament. Surely, such a strep would signal your Government’s commitment to transparency at the outset.”
Coupled with the letter requesting greater transparency and public consultation in the Bill-making process, CHRI also enclosed a brief note consisting of 32 “preliminary comments and key concerns” regarding the draft of the Bill that was first made public.
Foremost among the concerns highlighted by the CHRI was the “virtually toothless” RTI Commission which they say has “no power to impose sanctions on anybody for non-compliance”.
The list also included concerns relating to exemption clauses in the Bill. One clause which protects communication between the Attorney General’s Office and the Government was deemed to be “not in tune with international best practice standards”.
There was also criticism of the fact that not all exemptions were subject to a sunset clause of 10 years meaning that certain exemptions to the Bill would be applicable eternally – leaving information permanently out of the public’s reach.
Verite Research, a think tank based in Colombo, Research Director Gehan Gunatilleke who was among the civil society members who discussed the first draft of the RTI Bill that was approved by Cabinet in December last year said that the concerns raised by CHRI were valid to the extent that there was room for improvement. However, Gunatilleke warned against “dwelling on these improvements at this stage” as that could potentially stall the passing of the Bill altogether.
“Improvements to the draft should be debated in Parliament. Any further delay will result in a recurrence of the trend we have seen over the last 12 years where a Cabinet-approved Bill with sufficient civil society backing is not placed before Parliament,” he said.
The RTI Bill was a key pitch of the Sirisena Presidential campaign as part of a promised movement towards greater transparency, accountability and media freedom. Though included in the 100-day program of the Yahapalana Government the Bill is being tabled today, over a year after the Government change.
Since the first draft of the Bill was initially disclosed to the public and made open for civil society input, the Government has conducted consultations with politicians at the provincial level. However the public remains in the dark as to any changes that may have taken place during these consultations.
Throughout the letter and list of concerns the CHRI makes frequent reference to the RTI Acts and processes in neighbouring South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Nepal, often urging the Sri Lankan government to make use of precedents in these countries.
Citing the development process of the India’s RTI Act, CHRI said: “The reason why the RTI Act continues to be one of the most popular laws in India is because, citizens, civil society groups, academics, academics and the media were closely involved in the crafting of this law and later have continued to give valuable feedback to the Government for overcoming the bottlenecks in the implementation process.”