More than two months after the terms of office of three Commissioners of the first Right to Information Commission of Sri Lanka expired on 30th September and the remaining two Commissioners resigned, the Parliamentary Council which replaced the Constitutional Council under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, has yet not forwarded nominated names to the President of Sri Lanka for appointment in terms of Section 12 (3) of the RTI Act.
Parliament had published the call for nominations to the Commission in the first week of October in response to which the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), media organisations and civil society groups had forwarded their nominations. BASL, which is the only professional entity named in Section 12 as having an allocated single seat, had nominated former RTI Commissioner and prominent advocate Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena to fill the seat according to a press release issued by BASL at the time.
The Colombo Telegraph learns that the Sri Lanka Press Institute, comprising the editors, publishers and journalists, had nominated former judge of the Court of Appeal Rohini Walgama who had also served on the previous Commission. Other media organisations and public interest groups had also sent in nominations. However reports differ as to how many nominations have been recieved by the Parliamentary Council with the number varying by some accounts, from 20-40 nominations.
Civil society watchdogs and media groups have complained regarding the delay to put new Commissioners into place. Issuing a press release several weeks ago, the Steering Committee of the National Media Forum called upon the Parliamentary Council represented by Government and Opposition members to immediately appoint members to the Right to Information (RTI) Commission and to ensure the people’s rights guaranteed by Sri Lanka’s Constitution. Editors and journalists forming part of the Forum pointed out that, there is not even a permanent Director General in place at the Commission. Currently the Media Ministry has seconded its Additional Secretary, Administration to act in the place of the Director General. As per Section 13 of the Act, the Director General, as the CEO of the Commission, must be appointed by the Commission.
Journalists have meanwhile asked on social media as to whether the reluctance of the Government to have an independent and fully functional RTI Commission in place is due the risks that this will pose to corrupt politicians and public officials. ‘Is this part of the general breakdown in state systems evident everywhere else in Sri Lanka?’ asked a journalist who had been using the Commission appeal process against delays by Government authorities to give information. ‘If they do not have the Commission to crack the whip over them as we have seen during the past few years, we might as well forget about the RTI Act,’ he said.
The Colombo Telegraph has also understood that the staff of the Commission is largely idle with appeals piling up and no Commissioners to attend to them. A staffer who spoke to Colombo Telegraph on the grounds of anonymity said that the backlog will make it doubly hard for the new Commissioners to attend to the work. ‘Perhaps this is the idea behind the delays’ he said.
Sri Lanka’s RTI Act was passed unanimously in Parliament in 2016. During 2017-2021, the first RTI Commission issued several hundred Orders out of which, a percentage of 82% had resulted in directives to the Government release information, from the Office of the Cabinet to municipal authorities and District/Divisional Secretary offices. Though compliance to Commission Orders had been generally high during the first two years, the global pandemic had interrupted the RTI process from 2020 onwards.
The Commission office also informed Colombo Telegraph that ten appeals have been filed against Commission decisions to the Court of Appeal. These include the Order issued against former President Maithripala Sirisena to release the Declaration of Assets of the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Order issued to Parliament to release the lists of MPs who have submitted their Declarations of Assets and Liabilities and a directive to the Central Bank to release information on the investments of EPF/ETF Funds.
As of this date, the Court of Appeal has not heard and determined these appeals which have been pending for more than two years.