The Government has strongly denied reports in some Sinhala media that it plans to amend the Right to Information Act to ensure that Cabinet secrets are not subjected to RTI disclosure.
Responding to reports that an amendment bringing about this change will be hurriedly brought to Sri Lanka’s RTI Act ranked internationally as the third best law in the world, Director General of Information Ranga Kalansooriya responded on social media, denying the same. The DG Information stated that what was intended was merely to seek the advice of the Attorney General in regard to the application of the exemption relating to Cabinet papers and decisions. He stated further that ‘in any case there will be no move to curtail the law. The news is the usual exaggeration by media.’
Section 5(1)(m) of the Act states that information may be refused where it concerns a Cabinet Memorandum in respect of which a decision has not been taken unless, as provided in Section 5(5), the RTI Commission determines that the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the harm that would result from its disclosure.
This provision is far more expansive than the equal provision in the Indian RTI Act which shuts out not only Cabinet memoranda but also ‘cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers’ (S 8 (1) (i) of the Indian Act. The Indian law goes on to state that the ‘decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over.’
Responding to the news, RTI activists contacted by Colombo Telegraph noted that media reports of amendments to the RTI Act were surprising and unexpected. They were in fact, directly contrary to the public announcement at a Cabinet briefing given by President Mathripala Sirisena in April this year. This is where he specifically informed all Cabinet Ministers in a Note copied to the RTI Commission of Sri Lanka, that Cabinet decisions and Memoranda not falling within excepted categories under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, No 12 of 2016, have to be made available to a citizen upon request.
The President declared on a Note presented by him that when requests are received from a ‘citizen’ in accordance with RTI Regulations and Rules, necessary action needs to be taken by the Secretary to the Cabinet. The Cabinet was informed of the appointment of an Information Officer (IO) and a Designated Officer (DO) for the Cabinet. It was further stated that even though previously, all Cabinet decisions were considered as confidential documents, conveyed only to the Secretary to the relevant Ministry, the parties who are directly involved in the implementation or the Attorney General, the RTI Act had changed that process. The importance of this announcement to the Cabinet arose in the context of this indicating a change in the policy of the Government under the direction of the President himself.
President Sirisena also pointed out that in conformity with proactive disclosure obligations under the RTI regime, Cabinet decisions and other facts required to be published therein will be carried on the website of the Cabinet Office.