Article 19 has urged the Sri Lankan parliament to adopt the draft Right to Information Act put forward by the cabinet, which if passed as is, would be one of the best in the world.
“The draft Right to Information Act put forward by Cabinet would firmly protect the right in law and therefore we urge parliament to adopt the Act without changes, so that the people of Sri Lanka can being to use it,” said Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director.
“Once adopted, the next few years will be a crucial test: having a good Act does not necessarily result in a transparent and accountable government. Experiences from neighbouring countries show that the hard work is about to begin: to ensure that information officers are quickly appointed and trained, and civil society needs to begin requesting as soon as possible.”
On 2 December 2015, the Sri Lankan Cabinet approved the draft Right to Information Act and sent it for discussion at the provincial level before being put to parliament. The draft Act has a number of excellent features:
- It provides for a strong and independent information commission that will be able to order the release of information being withheld by public bodies
- It provides seats on the information commission for civil society and media representatives
- It includes a broad public interest test for nearly all exemptions. This test will limit the application of exemptions where there is a greater public interest in the release of the information. Furthermore, many of the exemption also contain a specific public interest test too
- It specifically overrides other existing laws that may conflict with it
- It limits the restrictions on information that is over 10 years old.
There are a number of provisions that could be improved by Parliament:
- The draft Act limits the right to Sri Lankan citizens only. However, information, like other human rights, should be available to everyone. Many marginalised people or those displaced by conflict may not have citizenship or evidence of citizenship and would therefore be denied their right
- The exemptions on information relating to defence, national security and trade negotiations could be further limited with a requirement that the exemption only applies to the release of such information that is likely to cause serious harm
- The long time limits could be reduced. Currently, officials are given 14 working days to decide whether to release the information, and a further 14 days to actually do so. Officials also have the ability to extend the deadline for a further 21 working days. In total, 49 working days, or 10 weeks, is a comparatively long time.
A law protecting the right to freedom of information was a key manifesto pledge of the current government. ARTICLE 19 reviewed an earlier draft of the bill in February and May 2015, and met with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in May to discuss the bill’s shortcomings as part of a post-election media freedom mission.
Upon Sri Lanka adopting the law, South Asia will become one of the leading regions in legislating to protect the right to information. A map of states with right to information laws is available on the ARTICLE 19’s website, which includes the laws in Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan.
ARTICLE 19 reviewed all the right to information laws in the Asia region, pinpointing their strengths and weaknesses in the report ‘Asia Disclosed’ published September 2015.