In a Statement marking one year of the operationalizing of the globally acclaimed Right to Information Act, Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Commission has pointed to slow and steady changes made by RTI to the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans with Orders issued to Public Authorities resulting in the release of information relating to land rights, migrant rights as well as the exposure of irregular and unlawful practices and actions in state authorities.
One instance of such release of information related to statistical data on rehabilitated former cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) classified by age, district and sex up to 2017 by the Bureau of the Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation.
The Colombo Telegraph accessed the Order on the Commission’s website. Citizens cannot be asked as to why they request information under RTI, the Commission had informed the Bureau when the facts disclosed that it had repeatedly questioned the information requester, a journalist. Objections raised by the Bureau leading to the information being refused by the Information Officer and the Designated Officer had not been accepted. ‘Similar information up to 2014 had already been released publicly on the website of the Bureau relating to rehabilitated persons classified under District, gender, age etc.‘ and ‘no rational basis’ had been put forward by the Bureau as to why a different policy was followed after 2014, the Commission said.
It was ruled that release of statistical data cannot offend the privacy exemption in Section 5 (1) (a) of the Act. The information did not contain the names, addresses or other personal details of the rehabilitated persons and the privacy exemption related to individuals rather than a community. The exemption relating to national security was also not accepted. It was observed that the release of the information appears to be in the interest of, (rather than to the detriment of), the functions of the Bureau and the public interest.
In its Statement, the Commission has noted that as at February 3rd 2018, it has recorded approximately 411 perfected appeals with appeals being concluded/pending/listed for hearing in approximately 350 cases. Information has been released in a majority of the appeals (81) and a few dismissals of vexatious appellants has been recorded along with a decrease in defective appeals which is attributable to the appeal process gradually becoming more familiar to citizens.
Though there had been an increase in the numbers of appeals being filed before the Commission and positive awareness of RTI, certain state institutions have yet not appointed their Information Officers or named their Designated Officers. In other instances, Public Authorities have frequently asked for extensions of time. It has been a matter for regret that defaulting Public Authorities include those that have special duties to promote the values of RTI in enhancing education and civic participation in the democratic process, the Commission has pointed out. It has warned that ‘a pattern of evasive behavior’ on the part of Public Authorities will be responded to appropriately.
All the Orders of the Commission are available on its trilingual website. It has been stated that detailed reasons for the release of information are made public so that Public Authorities and citizens are aware of the balance struck between the public interest underlying the principle of maximum disclosure in the Act and considerations of privacy along with other narrowly specified grounds on which information may be denied.
The Statement emphasizes that while many appeals deal with maladministration in government, a significant percentage relates to procurement issues, wastage of public funds, inefficient service delivery and information on development projects. Almost a quarter concerned human resource disputes in Public Authorities such as lack of transparency arising in the conducting of exams as well as awarding promotions while the other most frequent area in which appeals were lodged was with regard to land and property disputes. In addition an increasing number of appeals concern school admissions and administration.
The Commission has pointed out that it is mandated by the Act to provide advice on the process by which information is released even though advice may not be given on the subject matter of an information request which may come up before the Commission on appeal. The most frequent requests for advice on processes of information seeking and giving under the Act come from local government bodies, divisional secretariats and public enterprises. It states that in 2018, as the Commission gets its independent Fund voted on by Parliament as required in terms of Section 16 of the Act, it will engage in greater public outreach with entities obliged by the Act to provide information.
The Statement also notes that many Public Authorities have already sent in their Annual Reports to the Commission. However, it is emphasized that greater compliance needs to be shown with Sections 8 and 9 of the Act that specify proactive disclosure in regard to budgets, public services, expenditures, procurement processes and prior disclosures from specific requests in line with the Guidelines of the Commission available on http://rticommission.lk/.