Getting used to their right to know

When President Maithripala Sirisena (in picture) promised to introduce a Right to Information Act in his manifesto prior to the January 2015 elections, it sounded distant to most Sri Lankans. Like millions of citizens in the region, they had resigned to their government’s opaque administration and its aversion to accountability. When the Act became a reality in 2016, citizens suddenly found a new dynamic with the government. They could ask more questions and, significantly, be entitled to answers. “We are receiving at least 100 applications every day from all over the country,” said Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Government Information Department. “This is an unexpected number within months of implementation,” he said, pointing to the need for more awareness at all levels.

A member of the Right to Information Commission of Sri Lanka, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, thinks it is crucial that the use of the law is not limited to Colombo. All the same, it is good to see that public officers are themselves using the law to get information in their own interests, she said. “Even more so, it is positive to see that Information Officers are using the law as a tool to safeguard themselves against repercussions from their superiors.”

However, there are some immediate challenges particularly on the ‘demand’ side of the RTI, according to journalist and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene. “Citizens need to see RTI as a tool for solving their local level problems — both private and public grievances — and be motivated to file RTI applications. For this, they must overcome a historical deference towards the government, and start demanding answers.” Sri Lankan media, in his opinion, is yet to warm up to RTI’s potential. “A national newspaper editor told me last week his newspaper has its ‘own ways and means’ of eliciting information… but promisingly, a few younger journalists are doing public interest stories — on disasters, waste management and human rights — using RTI.”

Post-war concerns
From the side of citizens, there seems to be evident interest in pushing authorities for answers, if Vavuniya-based youth network AFRIEL’s experience is any indication. The network has helped nearly 1,500 people across the country file RTI petitions. Most of the applications from people in the Tamil-majority north are about military-occupied land, documentation pertaining to ID cards and birth certificates and information on forcefully disappeared relatives — some of the key post-war concerns of the community.

“A lot of times it is evident that the responses from officials are fake or unacceptable. While we are not too optimistic about the answers we can elicit, we are keen on exposing the extent of corruption in the system and pushing for more transparency,” its spokesman Ravindra de Silva said. According to Ms. Pinto-Jayawardena, the law is strong on the reactive use of RTI. But she thinks the real strength of RTI is in the proactive disclosure requirements where authorities voluntarily disclose information, increasing public trust and confidence. “A law alone cannot change the mentality of people or the culture of secrecy in institutions. The evolving RTI process in Sri Lanka must go beyond the theory of the law to challenge the culture.”

Sri Lanka was quite ambitious in commencing the full implementation of the RTI Act after six months of preparation, observed Mr. Gunawardena. While there are gaps in awareness, capacity and funding, he is hopeful that the “teething problems” can be overcome soon. “RTI in Sri Lanka has not yet opened the floodgates of public information, but the dams are slowly but surely being breached.”

Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo.

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