Moving forward with Right to InformationBy Sajitha Dharmasiri
In Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, as the name ‘republic’ points out, the state belongs to the people and is maintained by the tax money of the people. Therefore people have the right to know information regarding the state and the institutions, which enables them to involve in the governance. However that has not been the case for few decades due to the lack of legislation towards the right to know information. There are lots of talks of corruption and inefficiency in state sector but people suffered the inability to get information on such matters. However, one of the most revolutionary developments of the past few decades, the Right to Information Act has emerged as the answer.
Brief history about Right to Information in Sri Lanka
“Liberties aren’t given, they are taken.” - Aldous Huxley
1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka initially did not have sufficient provisions for right of access to information. Therefore many personals and civil society organizations tried to discuss the necessity of right to information for many years since. Due to their struggle which spans over a decade, with the 19th amendment to the constitution, and with the Right to Information Act 2016, the Right to Information is now on the implementation. Following are few key points in history related to the Right to Information. These are written here for the sole purpose of making the reader understand how hard it had been to establish the Right to Information and how much time it had taken.
In 1994, The Right to Information discussions has been taken to surface with the parliamentary election by few media associations and civil society organizations. Same year with the newly appointed government, Travel Information and Aviation Minister introduced a cabinet paper “Media Policy of the Government” which has a clause about accepting Right to Information and giving constitutional protection for it.
In 1996, Sri Lanka Legal Commission introduced a bill about access to information where they accepted the unsatisfactory situation related to the Legal regime. Same year, the Media Ministry appointed R.K.W Gunasekara Committee to reform laws affecting Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression and in their report 3rd recommendation was about including Right to Information under the Right to Freedom of Expression according to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
In 2000, Right to Information was included under fundamental rights in 2000 constitution Bill but ruled out due to protests of the opposition. In 2006 Sri Lanka Legal Commission introduced a Right to Information bill for the second time.
In 2010, a new bill about access to information was introduced by a committee appointed by Justice Minister with the opinions of Press institute and the Editors Guild. However the minister lost the election that year and no one carried out the bill. Same year again a bill about Right to Information was introduced to the parliament by opposition but was withdrawn due to protests from the government.
In 2015, parliament passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Act on 28th April 2015, and certified into law by the Speaker 15th May 2015. With this, Freedom of information has been added to the Fundamental Rights Chapter, making it a judicially enforceable right. Media and parliamentary affairs minister brought a cabinet paper to bring the RTI act and the responsibility of making the bill was assigned to ministry of media and parliamentary affairs, ministry of public administration and to the ministry of Justice. A committee was appointed with representatives of media and civil associations.
In 2016 Right to Information bill was introduced to the parliament and passed on 24th June with amendments from opposition and government without a parliament vote. Speaker signed the act on 04th August 2016. Legislative Council requested Editors, Publishers, Journalist’s Associations and Civil Associations to propose names for the RTI commission and on 30th September 2016 President appointed three commissioners to the RTI Commission.
Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2016
Right to Information Act, No. 12 of 2016 provides ground for Right to Information. It states in the preamble,
“Whereas the Constitution guarantees the right of access to information in Article 14A thereof and there exists a need to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public authorities by giving effect to the right of access to information and thereby promote a society in which the people of Sri Lanka would be able to more fully participate in public life through combating corruption and promoting accountability and good governance.”
The Act has following key areas covered.
Establishment of the right to information commission
Duties of ministers and public authorities
Appointment of information officers and procedure for gaining access to information
Denial of access to information
In the section for establishment of the right to information commission states that it shall consist of five persons appointed by the President upon the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. It also states what categories the persons shall be chosen, and the restrictions and guidelines on how persons shall be recommended, the duties of the commission and the power it consists.
In the section for duties of ministers and public authorities states that it shall be the duty of every public authority to maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in such form as is consistent with its operational requirements which would facilitate the right of access to information as provided for in this Act. The term Public Authorities refers to government ministries, government departments, public corporations, local authorities, institutions created by a Provincial Council, non-government organizations, institutes of higher education, private educational institutes, courts, tribunals and institutions created to serve justice.
The Act states that, every public authority must appoint one or more officers as information officers and a designated officer to hear appeals for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of this Act. Information officers’ role is to deal with requests for information made to the public authority of which he or she has been appointed its information officer, and render all necessary assistance to any citizen making such request to obtain the information.
The Act also describes when the access to information shall be refused. Personal information which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, information that would undermine the defense of the state or its territorial integrity or national security, information would cause serious prejudice to the economy of country, information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property protected under the Intellectual Property Act are few areas which access to information can be refused.
The RTI process can be simplified into following important steps.
Make a request in writing to the Information Officer of a Public Authority with the details of the information requested. In case of the information seeker being not able to make the request in written format they may orally communicate it to the information officer. Need to give reasons if information needed within 48 hours in case it is necessary to safeguard the life or liberty of a person.
The Information Officer must respond to request within 14 working days, either agreeing to disclose information or providing reasons if not agreed to disclose the information. If the decision is made to give the information, information must be given within 14 days of the date of agreeing to give the information.
If not satisfied with the decision of the Information Officer, then can appeal to the Designated Officer of the Public Authority within 14 days from the date the decision was made.
If information not given the by the Designated Officer, then appeal to the Right to Information Commission within two months of the decision of the Designated Officer.
If not satisfied with the decision of the Commission, then appeal to the Court of Appeal within one month of the decision of the Commission.
In order to RTI process work effectively there are few key areas that has to function properly. Public authorities has to maintain all their records duly catalogued and indexed in such form as is consistent with its operational requirements which would facilitate the right of access to information. And also they need to publish details of facilities available to citizens for obtaining information. The person who requests information also has a responsibility to provide all the necessary details to identify the information requested and the formats and language preferred.
Moving RTI forward with Information Technology
Sri Lanka has been impressive in the Implementation of Right to Information since the act passed. The Right to Information Rating program, founded by Access Info Europe (AIE) and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), rank Sri Lanka currently in 3rd place in their global ranking system. That is huge achievement considering the short period of time it has been taken to get up to this level since the act passed. However it can improve a lot more by integrating with information technology.
Sri Lanka is a country with huge potential in IT sector, currently ranked 13 in the Global Services Location Index by AT Kearney, emerging as one of the top IT outsourcing destinations. However it has been visible that state sector is lacking the integration with IT. It has been same for the implementation of the RTI. It would be a duty of related authorities to make way towards integrating IT with RTI process as well as it would be responsibility of IT sector personals for proposing such solutions. Following are few areas which IT can be used for the improvement of RTI.
Proactive information disclosure
Raising the general public awareness
Above RTI process described can be identified as reactive information disclosure since it needs someone to request information before it has been disclosed. Whereas proactive information disclosure means that public authorities are voluntarily provide information to general public without having someone to request such. Some of the information that can be disclosed proactively includes institutional or organizational Information, operational information, public services, legislation and regulations, public participation, budgets and expenditure and finances. Proactive information disclosure has been already implemented for some public authorities up to satisfactory level but improvements can be done. One such improvement is providing a common platform, common formats of data, regulations and rules on which data needs to be disclosed proactively, which will need expertise of IT community as well.
The reactive RTI process above has its own manual processes if not the whole process that can be improved with IT. And also the general public awareness on RTI would be more if it has been enabled through a common online platform. However, before moving into that level of IT integration, the first step would be, making the information acquired by individuals through RTI process, to be disclosed online. In the current process, the publishing of the information acquired solely depend on the person who requested information rather than the information officer. There can be few issues and inefficiencies such as people who requested information getting harassed, people who acquired information using it as a leverage against some person or organization, same information being requested repetitively due to not being aware of its release previously. If the information disclosed are published online for general public to see such issues will be minimized. There needs to be rules, regulations, tools and training for the information officers to make sure the information would be published online as soon as it disclosed to the person who requested information.
Above are two simple suggestions that the writer had when reading the publications about RTI act. It’s clear that combining RTI with Information Technology, it will direct at implementation of E-Governance, application of Information Technology on governance, which would be a broader area. In fact the RTI can be identified as the legal framework which removed most of the blockades that were preventing the movement towards the E-Governance. The work to be done towards the IT integration would take huge effort, will have substantial cost and will take considerable time but it would be the way forward with Right to Information.
We have to pay our gratitude towards some personals and civil society organizations including civil rights activists, media organizations for the long struggle which spanning over a decade towards Right to Information. Since now it’s in implementation, the IT community also has a responsibility to finding and proposing the solutions to improve the implementation of Right to Information.
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