Outlining the media policy of the Rajapaksa Government in assuming duties on Thursday (13th August), its newly minted Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella made the smooth functioning of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Commission (RTI Commission) a priority, claiming that, ‘the public’s right to obtain and access accurate information will be protected.’
The recently gazetted List of Subjects and Functions of the new Government which swept into power following General Elections on August 5th 2020 on a landslide victory of close to a 2/3rds majority with its allies obtaining a significant chunk of votes even from the minority dominated North and East promises a reformed ‘media culture’ for Sri Lanka. No details are spelt out as to what this ‘reformed media culture’ will be. Previously, the media and journalists were threatened and intimidated under the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency with several editors being assaulted and assassinated, notably Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge which cases still remain unsolved.
Analysts said to Colombo Telegraph that the Government’s early pledges to support RTI and the RTI Commission speaks to its rural vote base as RTI was a rare reform which practically helped ordinary people. ‘The middle and upper classes were not much interested in RTI except in select cases. But poor people used the RTI Act enormously as helped by the RTI Commission’s pro-transparency decisions’, a media activist who edits an alternative Sinhala newspaper said.
‘But how much this support will continue with an independent body like this Commission is another matter’, he said. In the background of the new Government’s intention to abolish the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, he clarified that this will not impact the RTI Act except if the Constitutional Council is done away with. Then future Commissioners will be appointed directly by the President, taking away the independent nature of the appointment, he said.
The RTI Act was enacted by the Parliament on 4th August 2016 on a campaign promise of the United National Party Government after fourteen years of advocacy by media and civil society. Appointments of retired public servant Mahinda Gammampila, prominent constitutional rights attorney Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (nominee of the Editors Guild/Sri Lanka Press Institute) and attorney SG Punchihewa (nominee of civil society) as Sri Lanka’s first RTI Commissioners took place on October 1st 2016. The nominees were recommended to then President Maithripala Sirisena by the Constitutional Council.
Former President of the Court of Appeal Justice AWA Salam was later appointed as the nominee of the Bar Association. Following N Selvakkumaran declining his nomination due to his working as a law academic at the Colombo University, social activist Selvy Thiruchandran was appointed as a replacement.
After the RTI Commission’s Rules were gazetted on 3rd February 2017 and the RTI Act was made operational, the country’s RTI regime was ranked globally as third best by international law ranking agencies with the RTI Commission singled out as one of the most powerful Commissions in the world. Trade unions including the Pilots Guild and the powerful all Ceylon Bank Employees Union got information on major corruption and environmental scandals while journalists lobbied for details of assets declarations of politicians including former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Act has also been invoked against the tri-services and the police with the RTI Commission ruling that national security concerns must be properly established to refuse information.
Activists however say that the RTI Act was most used by the poor during the past three years for ‘bread and rice’ issues in regard to land disputes, supply of electricity, water, distribution of Samurdhi benefits, admission of children to schools and to expose corruption in the building of rural infrastructure. Public servants also used the RTI Act to get details of promotions and appointments. Interestingly, the Northern District Secretariat, under popular former Government Agent, N Vethanayagam pioneered the revamping of the District Secretariat to fall in line with RTI requirements of open disclosure.
The five year terms of Sri Lanka’s first RTI Commissioners expire on 1st October 2021.