Right to Information (RTI) legislation was a landmark moment for Sri Lanka and arguably one of the most important and progressive efforts by the Government. However, passing legislation and implementing legislation are two different things and Sri Lanka still has miles to go before RTI achieves its full potential.
Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) launching the 2019 Implementation Assessment of the RIT Act in Sri Lanka this week, has noted that whilst Sri Lanka ranks fourth in the Global RIT Rating, which is a reflection of the strength of the RTI Act, the current implementation of the RTI Act has yielded a mid-range (yellow) grade for the country.
The objective of the TISL RTI Assessment was to gauge the implementation of the RTI Act, focusing on three areas; Proactive disclosure, Institutional measures and Processing of requests. Of the three areas assessed, Sri Lanka has scored red for proactive disclosure, yellow for institutional measures and yellow for the processing of requests.
The approach for the assessment was adopted from the ‘Freedom of Information Advocates Network’ (FOIAnet), which is an international network working to promote RTI. FOIAnet uses a colour grading system and numerical scoring to rate a country’s RTI implementation. The colour scoring ranges from; Red (needs significant improvement), Yellow (needs some improvement), and Green (needs little improvement).
It is unsurprising that Sri Lanka would score red in the proactive disclosure category as this process remains minimal at best. After the Constitutional crisis the Government even stopped the weekly Cabinet briefing, which earlier functioned as a platform where media could question decisions made by Cabinet, publicise important decisions made by the Government and present citizen concerns to policymakers.
Cabinet papers have to be laboriously found through contacts, which is extremely detrimental to transparency and engagement on important policies. Few ministries, institutions or departments proactively release information for the sake of updating the public and even when reports are released they are not in easy to consume formats that average people can read and understand or are accessible online. Departments are far more comfortable relaying information to each other but are reluctant to have that same information publicly discussed.
Obviously there will always be matters that cannot be disclosed but policies on key issues such as education, housing, healthcare, and policies that impact the economy should remain within the public domain as well. Ultimately the Government has the responsibility to act in public interest and transparency is important to prevent corruption, especially in a country where justice on corruption matters still remains largely elusive.
The RTI space should also encourage whistle blowing and push opaque public departments that handle vast amounts of public money such as Customs, the Inland Revenue Department and Budget allocations to be more transparent. Institutional measures and faster processing of requests also need to be looked at.
One positive that the study found was that public institutions at the district and divisional administrative levels have performed better than those at national level. This demonstrates a more responsive State at the primary point of citizen interaction, which can spur a bottom-up drive to improve RTI implementation.