Right off to a rocky start

In June, last year, Parliament did what many Sri Lankans did not believe would ever happen: they passed a right-to-information law that gives citizens broad access to the inner workings of their government.

The act’s passage was widely seen as a victory. The Centre for Law and Democracy, an international non-profit that analyzes RTI laws around the globe, ranks Sri Lanka’s as the third best in the world.

Only Mexico and Serbia score higher.

Many officials in President Maithripala Sirisena’s government say the law is proof that the state is opening up after years of authoritarianism and war and that the effort delivers a key campaign promise of reform.

But some civil society groups and journalists are saying it’s too early to judge Sri Lanka’s new policy. A law, they argue, however well-drafted, can always be hampered by bad implementation.

And early reports show that despite the Act’s legal guarantees, major barriers still exist between Sri Lankans and their right to information.

Battle lines drawn

Sri Lanka’s RTI law went into effect on February 3. Government Information Department Director General Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya said that since then, public agencies are receiving about 100 requests every day.

Analysts said, that is a pretty healthy number.

“Strong initial demand is very important,” Toby Mendel, who develops the global RTI ranking, said at a press briefing in Colombo earlier this month. “You won’t get supply without demand.”

He said he was happy with Sri Lanka’s initial numbers. “This is very encouraging as a starting position, since normally it takes much longer for request volume to grow,” he added.

But he warned that the new RTI system could create an oppositional relationship between government officials, and those seeking information.

“Unfortunately, when RTI starts to get used, battle lines get entrenched,” he said.

Early RTI filers have experienced those battle lines.

Transparency International Sri Lanka, an international non-profit with an office in Colombo, has filed multiple RTI requests to test the new law.

The organisation had early success with the Election Commission, who responded to their request well within the 14-day time frame outlined by the law.

They said, they ran into problems, however, with the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine. After submitting an RTI request, they were informed that the information officer who deals with RTI submissions was not in, so the request couldn’t be processed.

When the information officer did come back, Transparency International said that the ministry rejected their RTI request.

Later, after the non-profit publicized the scuffle online, different officials from the ministry got in touch with the organisation to ask for the names of the officers who rejected their request.

They have not heard from the ministry since, a Transparency International spokesperson said this week.

The Daily News has experienced similar problems while filing RTI requests.

The Daily News has filed a request for data on trash collection in Colombo with the Colombo Municipal Council, amid the city’s continuing garbage crisis.

But the CMC does not have a clearly identified information officer to handle RTIs, as is required by law. Calls were directed between multiple people identified as information officers, before being directed to a deputy commissioner of engineering.

At press time, the Daily News has still not received a receipt of its RTI request from the CMC, despite multiple phone calls and emails.

Related and also illuminating, is that Dr. Kalansooriya would not comment for this article. He cancelled a meeting with the Daily News at his office and did not respond to numerous follow-up emails and phone calls.

Lifting the shroud

Transparency International Sri Lanka’s Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere said that RTI’s rocky start will not resolve unless people use the law.

“People say things like my goodness, but is it working. People say things like that, but they don’t test the system,” he said. “I think this is also illustrative of the fact that we’re coming from a position where this idea of for

mally requesting information from authority is not something which we’re accustomed to.”

He said only a cultural change, and perseverance by individuals, will make the Act work as it should.

“Ultimately, we’re having to deal with a bureaucracy, which is really founded on being a closed government system,” he added.

There are indications, though, that the efforts of private citizens using RTI can actually pay off.

Documents supplied by the RTI Commission, the five-member body that rules on contested RTI requests, show how one man in Matara got his local government agencies to be accountable to him.

In February of last year, K.J. Wanniarachchi, a Matara resident, wrote to the Road Development Authority about a fish stall he believed was constructed illegally on Hakmana Road.

They wrote back to him three days later saying that “action was being initiated” to remove the unauthorized structure. But nothing happened; the fish stall remained for another year.

After the new RTI law went into effect, Wanniarachchi filed a request for more information about the fish stall. Then, within a week, the road authority removed it.

So Wanniarachchi made another request, this time for all letters and correspondence made between his initial complaint in 2016 and his recent RTI request, to see why nothing happened until he filed under the RTI Act.

At a hearing in Colombo, the RTI Commission ordered the Road Development Authority to turn those documents over to him.

The most recent government data available shows that the RTI Commission has had to issue 69 directives to public authorities on RTI requests, many at the behest of private citizens.

If courts find that government officials have deliberately obstructed the RTI process, they can be punished with fines, or jail time.

The RTI Act grants Sri Lankans a wide range of legal rights.

Securing those rights on the ground will play out in the ensuing months and years; It will happen in phone conversations with local information officers, and in appeals in front of the full RTI Commission. “People are used to being shrouded, blocked off,” , Transparency International Sri Lanka RTI Manager Sankhitha Gunaratne, said.

With the new RTI law, she hopes, “the state can be seen as their agent, rather than their overlord.” 


People waiting in line to file their RTI request


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