On the eve of our 69th Independence Day, Sri Lanka’s potentially historic Right to Information Act (RTI) will be activated for the benefit of all people across the country. Any and all citizens are now empowered to file information requests from public authorities – and demand answers. Unlike earlier, their requests cannot be met with silence as silence itself is not permitted by this law.
There are two choices. Information must be given or refused. If refused, reasons must be given. Even so, this refusal can be taken before the independent RTI Commission which began operating at the end of last year. Reportedly the Commission has sent its Rules and Regulations under the Act to be gazetted by the Government so that these regulations could be enforced.
If the earlier freedom of information draft law in 2004 had not been thrown into the dustbin by politicians, Sri Lanka would have had RTI even before India. Probably politicians may not have then got away with such a brazen plunder of public funds. Despite all those setbacks, we have the law now. This is an achievement that the Sri Lankan media is particularly proud of since it was represented by senior editors and lawyers who pioneered the Cabinet-approved 2004 draft and then actively collaborated in the RTI Bill that was enacted last year. Much hard work has gone into this effort. It is not something to be treated lightly.
The duty to give information extends to private bodies which collaborate with government, courts and non-governmental organizations. Even where exceptions to information requests are specified in the RTI law itself, information must be given if the public interest demands disclosure. Drafts of an RTI law proposed years ago by the Law Commission of Sri Lanka for example, were not so broad. A more enlightened approach was adopted in the draft that was passed into law last year.
What exactly is public interest and how that balance will be achieved depends a lot on the way in which the Commission interprets its mandate – and how the court will ultimately respond as the final appeal lies there. At all levels, support must be extended to make sure that the RTI law does not become just another law and to strengthen the RTI Commission.
In the early days of RTI in India, it was the RTI Commission which led the way, laid down standards and pro-actively interpreted the Indian law. It was supported by the media and the people. The Indian bureaucracy and the politicians, even reluctantly, had to comply. RTI activists died in pursuit of their struggles. Even now, that commitment survives though the fierce spirit of those first RTI Commissioners has lessened in their successors.
In Sri Lanka, we are off to a good start. The RTI law has been welcomed internationally and ranked high in the global index. But that will mean little or nothing if the Government fails to provide the Commission with sufficient financial resources or seeks to restrict the Commission in its financial independence.
Recent news reports have stated that the Office of the President has brought expenditure for the Commission under its head. If at all, this must be strictly a temporary measure. The Act states that the Commission must be financed from its own fund set up from money voted for it by Parliament. That legal condition must be strictly complied with. The country is watching as to whether the Commission will be allowed to function independently.
The RTI Act is operationalised a day before we celebrate our independence tomorrow. This is no coincidence. Instead of a monotonous annual recital of things that mean little to the ordinary man or woman, there is something different this time around. A culture of pro-actively disclosing information must replace a culture of secrecy. There are difficult struggles ahead, no doubt as the whole country, the media, politicians and citizens get used to that idea.