Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) has warned that the draft 20th Amendment to the Constitution would imperil the effective functioning of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Commission (RTI Commission), through a petition filed to the Supreme Court this week.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing an unprecedented number of 39 petitions challenging the 20th Amendment. Hearings will continue on Monday October 5th, 2020.
In a post to mark World RTI Day on September 28th 2020 carried on the TI-Berlin website, TISL has pointed out that ‘The fact that the Commission exists, acts as a check on all public authorities. It means that they are conscious that any unwarranted action could be appealed against. The Commission has, in its orders spanning 2017-2019 ordered public authorities to disclose information to citizens, in 84% of cases. This is a robust record. It is almost impossible to imagine the RTI regime in Sri Lanka functioning effectively, if the RTI Commission were not to be in place as it now is.’
TISL’s concern comes in the wake of Sri Lanka’s RTI regime being used as a role model in other countries in Asia embarking on RTI legislation, including Malaysia and the Phillippines. Marking the international celebration of RTI, the Paris based UNESCO Headquarters featured RTI Commissioner and senior attorney-at-law Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena on a global webinar moderated by UNESCO’s Head of Communications Guy Berger.
Other speakers included Mexico’s Information Commissioner Blanca Ibarra Cadena and H.E. Mr Hans C. Wesseling, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to UNESCO.
Concerns have arisen over the fact that the draft 20th Amendment’s devaluing of the independent commissions in providing for their members to be appointed through a political parliamentary council instead of the 19th Amendment’s Constitutional Council will ultimately visit the RTI Commission, even though the Government has promised that it would keep the RTI regime intact. At an event in Colombo on 28th September, Minister of Mass Media Keheliya Rambukwella reiterated the Government’s support for the RTI Act and reaffirmed that the constitutional clause relating to Right to Information in the 19th Amendment is being kept intact in the draft 20th Amendment.
TISL has observed that, ‘In the past few weeks, the Government of Sri Lanka has proposed an amendment to the existing Constitution that seeks to overhaul several key provisions, including Articles regarding the appointment of independent commissions. However, the proposed amendment fails to address the issue of appointment of members to the RTI Commission. While it replaces the previous appointing authority – the Constitutional Council – with a less independent Parliamentary Council, it does not count the RTI Commission among the commissions to be thus appointed.’
It has noted that, ‘in any event, including the RTI Commission in this list would still be an inadequate solution, given the more political, less authoritative nature of the proposed Parliamentary Council.’
It has added that, ‘Having the RTI Commission as an appeal body before having to go to court is crucial for RTI operationalisation for another key reason. If citizens were not able to go before the Commission, they would have to seek recourse in Court, starting off a lengthy and expensive process that most citizens would not have the luxury to engage in. The grassroots nature of RTI use in Sri Lanka is only a reality today because the RTI Commission functions in the manner it does.’