Freedom from Secrecy

Saturday, 4 February 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • RTI comes into effect 
  • Media Minister warns of teething problems, encourages public to use RTI Act
  • TISL files six public interest RTI applications
  • Applicants must show persistence in desire to unlock state info, says TISL
  • Information Officers to be appointed for all public authorities by Monday


 By Dharisha Bastians

The Right to Information (RTI) Act came into effect yesterday, bringing with it what advocates hope will be an era of open government, a culture of accountability and active citizen participation in the way the country is governed.

The right to information was enshrined as a fundamental right through the 19th Amendment to the constitution that was enacted in April 2015, and the RTI Act came into law in June 2016. Seven months later, citizens can now apply for information at hundreds of public authorities categorised under the RTI Act.

The Government strongly encouraged citizens to make use of the RTI Act, even though Ministers admitted the process could be subject to teething problems. 

“RTI is new to us, so we can’t expect it to be 100% perfect,” said Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilake who held a press conference yesterday. “But we will learn from experience,” he said, urging the public to make use of the new law.

While applicants sought to submit requests for information in different parts of the country, several Government offices, especially police divisions were unaware of the law and their obligations under it, Daily FT learnt. 

Corruption watchdog Transparency International Sri Lanka filed public interest RTI applications at six public authorities as the Act came into force yesterday, including one application at the Presidential Secretariat requesting information about the President’s asset declaration. TISL also made applications at the Employees’ Provident Fund, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Land Reform Commission, the Elections Commission, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Customs. At the Elections Commission, TISL requested financial reports of registered political parties.

As the Act takes force, one of the main issues will be the fact that while the concept of open government is enshrined in the right to information principle, the entire state machinery is still anchored in an establishment of closed mindset and continues to see themselves as gatekeepers of information that the public now has a right to know, advocates say.

“The promise of open government must therefore be administered by those trained and conditioned in an environment of closed government,” explains TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeysekere. This challenge will require requestors of information to show persistence and stamina in their desire to unlock state held information, Obeysekere said.

Applications for information can be made orally, in writing or electronically through email. “Citizens should be clear about what information specifically they are applying for,” advises RTI Consultant to the Ministry of Mass Media Piyatissa Ranasinghe. If information is being sought about a road being built, applicants should be clear whether they require a concrete sample for testing, whether they want to find out who the contractor is, a copy of the agreement or information about parties that have signed the agreement,” he explained.

From Monday (6), every public authority that falls within the purview of the RTI Act must place public notices with details of the Information Officer appointed for the office, with the officer’s name, email address and telephone number. “In the event an Information Officer has not been appointed at that institution, the head of the institution becomes information officer,” Ranasinghe said.

Information requests made at Government offices must be processed within 14 days, but if further time is required, the office may request a 14-day extension.