Coinciding with Independence Day on February 4, instead of only impressive talks and military parades, Sri Lanka also had the privilege of the historic Right to Information Act coming into operation -- guaranteeing to the people their fundamental right to information about what is done with billions in public money and resources.
The Daily Mirror in an editorial on February 3, the day on which the RTI Act came into operation called for adequate financial and other resources to be provided to the RTI Commission and for civic action groups to act proactively and seek information on big public contracts, projects and other deals to ensure transparency and accountability by political leaders and state officials. A good governance group translated this editorial into Sinhala and circulated it among the people so that the RTI Act could become a solid base whereby the right to information is ensured and more importantly politicians and top officials are not allowed to do big private business with public funds.
The RTI commission in a media statement this week says it is encouraged by the support and interest evidenced by the people in regard to the effective working of the RTI Act.
The Act was operationalised in respect of Public Authorities (PAs) on February 3. The Commission published a public notice in the newspapers in all three national languages on January 29 and February 2. The Daily Mirror advises the citizens to carefully read these notices so that they could act effectively to ensure transparency and accountability when handling public money and prevent the type of corruption and frauds, kickbacks and commissions revealed during the past 10 years.
The Commission points out it is the central oversight, policy-making and enforcement agency and the appeal body established under the Act. It is a statutorily independent body entrusted with the task of guiding implementing agencies and users of RTI, ensuring compliance with the Act and hearing appeals.
According to the Commission, the Act was enacted to bring about a major democratising transformation of relations between the citizens and the government. It imposes important new obligations of openness on public authorities which include constitutional and statutory entities, government departments and bodies, corporate bodies in which the government has a controlling interest, provincial and local authorities as well as courts, tribunals and institutions established to administer justice. This also includes private entities working under contract, agreement, licence or a partnership with the government -- where their statutory or public service or function is concerned -- higher educational, private vocational or technical educational institutions established, recognised or licensed under any written law or funded wholly or partly by the State and non–governmental organizations rendering a service to the public.
The Commission says it wishes to inform citizens they are now able to exercise a right to access information held by these public authorities, subject only to a few exceptions, which are subject to the public interest override. New norms are established for public authorities to proactively share information.
The Commission also says it is still in its early days and is operating in an interim capacity with a skeletal staff and from temporary premises. Yet the five-member Commission says it is committed to building a strong independent operation with the expertise and capacity to support all those who seek and provide public information. To that end, the Commission has developed rules on fees and appeals and provided feedback to the nodal agency, the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media on Regulations in regard to the effective implementation of the RTI Act.
According to the Commission, the February 3 gazette regulation strengthens proactive disclosure and obligations, stipulate criteria for the appointment of information officers and an open re-use policy. The rules specify a pro-people fee schedule, informal hearings of appeals and exceptionally states that if an appeal is successful to the designated officer or the commission, fees for that information will not be charged.
The Commission notes that participation and feedback by citizens is vital to bringing about a culture of accountability and openness. This is the primary objective of the RTI Act and the commission looks forward to proactive public engagement in that regard.