The Right to Information (RTI) Act No. 12 of 2016 brought with it a promise of open government, citizen’s active participation in governance and accountability to the people of the country. With RTI, anybody from a remote village such as Siyambalanduwa to a family affected by the war living in the Northern province to workers in the estate sector could utilise it to access information from government bodies. In fact it is a tool to uphold citizen’s rights and keep the Government accountable. However, despite many awareness programmes the citizenry still needs to better understand how they could utilise it. Recently the Centre for Policy Alternatives launched a publication on RTI and Media Usage along with a research publication titled ‘Responsiveness of Public Authorities to Email Applications under the RTI Act No. 12 of 2016.’
Accountability is the ultimate goal
While discussing the contents of the publication, Digital Media Analyst Nalaka Gunawardena said that the book could be used as a reference tool for both journalists as well as non-journalists. “There’s talk about good journalism, but how could RTI be applied for good journalism. The RTI law itself isn’t sufficient as you also need to have good hindsight about what topic would require an RTI. A choice also has to be made between doing simple stories and stories that would have an impact on society to hold the governance structure accountable,” opined Gunawardena.
He further said that another issue is where to obtain information from. While drawing examples from a few articles mentioned in the publication he said that once information is obtained it has to be presented to readers in a way they could understand.“But what is the ideal reaction to RTI-based articles? Many would ask ‘so what?’ That itself shows that there’s not much public apathy. Public concern should emerge, civil society organizations should rally around the issue, there has to be a humble governance structure that should be willing to correct errors and move forward. Accountability, after all is the ultimate end goal.” he added.
Shortcomings in the governance culture
Shedding light on the supply and demand aspect of using RTI, policy entrepreneur and founding chair of LIRNEasia Prof. Rohan Samarajiva said that as a public policy researcher he would look at it from the supply perspective. “Therefore when talking about RTI one has to look at how RTI can make the Government system more efficiently. As per my research and with my experience working in two government institutions, today the government structure is on the decline. Since existing organisations don’t do an efficient service there’s no space to setup new organisations. Therefore most tasks are outsourced. I feel the governance culture cannot be fixed,” said Prof. Samarajiva.
“Around 600 emails were sent to obtain information for this research and it was sent in the traditional method as well. I feel there won’t be much of a response. Therefore you should compare the success rate of responsiveness between traditional and e-methods. Certain organisations may not respond at all. The Government structure doesn’t have an email system. In 2012 Government officials were asked to use official email accounts, but official accounts are only being used by a handful of organisations. Therefore this research would have an impact on taking a step closer towards digitising governance cultures,” he opined.
There are young journalists who are working to curb disinformation. For that, verification tools and RTI should be combined together to get a better investigative report. But challenges also exist
(Executive Director at Centre for Investigative Reporting)
Combining verification tools and RTI
Reflecting on journalism practices that she experienced, Executive Director at Centre for Investigative Reporting Dilrukshi Handunnetti said that it was a challenge to find information back in the day. “20 years ago we thought the best would be to bring about RTI and do investigative journalism. Proactive disclosure is just a word because we don’t have a culture where people voluntarily provide information. One example was in the aftermath of the tsunami. The Government of Sri Lanka received a lot of funds and journalists had an issue tracking the distributing of funds. For that we needed a Public Enterprise Tracking System (PETS). That is also a good tool similar to RTI. However such discourses were irrelevant back in the day and PETS were sophisticated tools.” she opined.
She further said that RTI should be a tool for people as well as a tool for journalists. “Sometime ago we had to depend on a leaked document to access information and we were labelled as resorting to ‘leaked journalism’ in the international arena. We also don’t have a way to access public documents and don’t understand where to find them. You need to put in a lot of effort to find information. We have to look at the evolution of the newsroom. There are young journalists who are working to curb disinformation. For that, verification tools and RTI should be combined together to get a better investigative report. But challenges also exist. There’s a concern when someone refuses to provide information or when there’s a designated officer to give information,” explained Handunnetti.
RTI is a tool for society at large
“The civil society was very much involved in bringing RTI forward,” opined Lakshman Gunasekara, veteran journalist and founder President of South Asia Free Media Movement-Sri Lanka chapter. “We engaged in investigative journalism for decades. We were proud of doing critical reporting. But after some time journalists were killed and some were abducted. With that investigative reporting started to decline. Journalists are also reluctant to use RTI. Back then there was no RTI and we were determined to find information. RTI is a tool that the civil society could use to obtain information because journalists would anyway have their sources. On the other hand, journalists have to meet their deadlines,” said Gunasekara.
Challenges in the newsroom
“Whether journalists have time and resources to use RTI in the newsroom is a question,” said Kanchana Dasanayaka, Editor of ‘Ada’ Newspaper. “Journalists interested in doing investigative journalism didn’t have much scope with less tools. But the RTI facility has given an opportunity for investigative journalists to expose information to the public domain. We have written many articles using RTI and the ultimate message we want to give readers is that they too have the right to use it. One of the victories is that the Act didn’t get amended although there was a two-thirds majority. However, due to the scarcity of editorial staff only a handful of journalists have time to use RTI. But freelance journalists could utilise it and we could look at outsourcing journalists to use RTI and they could be remunerated. Personally I feel that this is the right of citizens,” opined Dasanayaka.
We engaged in investigative journalism for decades. We were proud of doing critical reporting. But after some time journalists were killed and some were abducted
Lakshman Gunasekara (Veteran Journalist and founder President of South Asia Free Media Movement Sri Lanka Chapter