Rights assured and rights distorted
Concern grows as to what kind of RTI Bill Sri Lanka
will enact :
Pic: Courtesy lightmillenium.org
The actual worth of Sri Lanka's RTI (Right to Information) law will
be in its implementation, mechanism and how the media and citizens would
use it after it is enacted. Sri Lanka had for too long good laws that
lie inactive in the statute book.
Sri Lanka will probably be the last country in the Asian bloc to
enact the Right to Information Act and the first to have an Act so
distorted that it virtually leaves room for the government to withhold
information at its discretion. Even if it's unclassified.
Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne MP who chaired the working committee
which prepared the draft bill confirmed to the Sunday Observer that the
finalized draft would be presented to Cabinet on Wednesday, November 25
The draft Bill which he oversaw is 'satisfactory', he says. He headed
a committee comprising 15 members including the Secretaries to the
Ministry of Justice, Ministry Mass Media and also the Ministry of Public
Former Director of the UNESCO International Program of Development
Communication, Wijayananda Jayaweera said, "Our team was tasked with
reviewing the old Act to make sense of it and engineer a bill which
would be void of the loopholes, while most of us are satisfied with the
draft, I am not sure if this would be presented to the Cabinet and
Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne
Pic: ANCL media library
ayaweera who was also a member of the same panel was critical of the
sanctity of this Act citing it as oddly different from any other. "There
have been several requests from the Attorney General's Department to
include a special clause that would exempt the department and its
officials from needing to provide information to the public," he said.
"That singular clause is detrimental to the whole Act."
He added that no other Right to Information Act in any country
includes a clause as this or makes exemptions of this nature.
"The Indian Right to Information Act has exempted 22 institutions,
but all of them are related to or involved in National Security
Jayaweera added that there is a high probability this clause would be
included in this Act. However until the Act is made public, no one would
know. "The 19th Amendment to the Constitution recognizes the Right to
Information as a fundamental right.
Essentially it means that any citizen has the right to access
information from anywhere as long as that information is needed to
safeguard a fundamental right. However this aspect has not been
sufficiently covered in the Act." He also made out a case for more
punitive powers to the Right to Information Commission, citing that they
should have more administrative powers to levy fines until they draw
"The counter point to this from the AG's Department was that
disciplinary matters concerning members of the government or its
institutions are governed by the Public Service Commission and that an
overlap would be arbitrary.
He also argued for a broader definition of the exemptions in the Act
whilst calling for a proactive disclosure of information.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena who has been vocal about the Right to
Information Act also voiced concern pertaining to some of the RTI's core
"The strength of a government's commitment lies in the enactment of
the Right to Information Act, not constitutional reforms," she said,
"because it's the RTI law which citizens will need to use the most."
Pic: Courtesy zubaanbooks.com
She, however, cautioned that no department of the government, the
police or even the AG can be granted special exemptions.
"They cannot be immune to review or be given blanket exemption,
because if so then the Act is laughable."
"In that balance between the Right to Information and the State's
interest, one cannot privilege the State as a matter of general
principal," she said.
"Except in terms of national security but the determination of that
balance rests entirely with the Right to Information commission and the
She added that in the event information is held back for justifiable
reasons, it may need to be disclosed for public interest.
Columnist and new media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene who recently
took part in a discussion on the RTI initiated by Transparency
International, said, "Some have been critical of the current draft of
the RTI Bill as it falls short of the ideal. But in my view, adopting
even an imperfect RTI law would be progressive."
"Proper implementation will require adequate political will,
administrative support and sufficient public funds. We would also need
sustained monitoring by civil society groups and media to guard against
the whole process becoming mired in too much red tape," he said. He
added that the RTI signifies a change in status quo.
"First, we need to shake off a long historical legacy of governments
not being open or accountable to citizens.
For over 2,000 years of monarchy, over 400 years of colonial rule and
67 years of self-rule since independence, all our governments have
restricted public information - even mundane ones unrelated to any
security or sensitive issues," he said.
"Thus, the 'default setting' in most government agencies seems to be
to deny and restrict information. When this finally changes, both public
servants and citizens will need to adjust."
"RTI is not simply a legal or technocratic solution. It is not a
quick fix to all problems that affect our society.
But it heralds a new way of thinking - a paradigm shift, if you like
- that would make our government more open, and our society more focused
on using information and data to make our lives better," he added.