The Right To Information (RTI) Commission which came into effect early in late December 2016 will soon face a major crisis. Despite the body being seriously cash-strapped, appeals from information requests submitted to Public Authorities will start pouring in by end of this month.
Since February 3rd, when the RTI Act was operationalised across the country, there has been a rush of information requests from citizens, ranging from service delivery to demands for transparency from the Office of the President downwards. Many of these will eventually end in appeals before the Commission.
This problem is worse given that though the Ministry of Media was claiming that it had carried out trainings for information officers during the past three month, the responses by Public Authorities to information requestors last week have been extremely confused. Even those information officers who have been appointed say they have been exposed only to general awareness raising on RTI but have not been given specific training on legal issues relating to the RTI Act which is the main demand. Many of them intend to appeal to the RTI Commission in this regard.
But it is unclear as to how the Commission itself is going to cope with this situation. The Colombo Telegraph learns that though the Commission office has been established at the BMICH, the Commission members themselves are working virtually free and that even the clerical staff is working at minimum wage.
‘Even though the Ministry of Mass Media was allocated Rs. 25 million to carry out work with regard to the ‘implementation’ of the RTI in Sri Lanka, the RTI Commission does not possess the required funding. This will prove to be a major issue in carrying out its functions.’
“The RTI Commission will have to wait till the 2018 national budget is presented to receive the necessary funding to carry out its work without any hassle,” a source pointed out.
According to the RTI Act, the Commission shall have its own Fund in an effort to ensure the independence of the Commission. However as two of the Commissioners were only appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena by end December, the Government is quoting this as a reason why a separate budget allocation was not given to the Commission in the 2017 Budget. The Commission chair Mahinda Gammanpila and two Commissioners, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and SG Punchihewa were appointed by 1st October 2016. Commissioners AWA Salam and Selvy Thiruchandran were appointed by the last week of December 2016.
Currently the Presidential Secretariat is giving allocations as and when the Commission requests which is a serious constraint. It has applied for Rs. 3 million for the Commission in a supplementary estimate presented to Parliament recently.
According to the funding component in the RTI Act, “(1) The Commission shall have its own Fund into which shall be credited (a) all such sums of money as may be voted upon from time to time by Parliament for the use of the Commission; and (b) donations, gifts or grants from any source whatsoever, whether in or outside Sri Lanka. (2) Where any money is received by way of donations, gifts or grants under subsection (1)(b), the sources and purpose for which such donation, grant or gift was made available shall be made public. (3) There shall be paid out of the Fund all such sums of money required to defray the expenditure incurred by the Commission in the exercise, discharge and performance of its powers, duties and functions.”