Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Commission has stated that it is committed to building a strong and independent operation with the expertise and capacity to support all seekers and providers of public information. Issuing a Media Statement, it has further stated that the five-member body, though still operating in an interim capacity with a skeletal staff from temporary premises (2- 203-204, BMICH, Colombo -07, Ph- 011 2691625) intends have a strong policy of proactive public engagement.
The RTI Commission also points out in its Media Statement that a Public Notice published by the Commission in all three national languages on 29th of January and 2nd of February, 2017 had emphasized this. It states that it has been greatly encouraged by the public support and interest in regard to the Right to Information (RTI) Act No 12 of 2016 and has pointed out that participation and feedback by citizens is vital to bringing about a culture of accountability and openness in Sri Lanka which is the primary objective of the RTI Act.
The RTI Commission is the central oversight, policy-making and enforcement agency as well as the appellate body established under the Act. It has extensive powers to summon PAs, inspect records and take offending information officers to court. The Commission, which came into existence in late December 2016, consists of Mahinda Gammanpila (Chair), AWA Salam, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Selvy Thiruchandran and SG Punchihewa.
Its Rules on Fees and Appeals, together with three Regulations proposed by the Commission to the Ministry of Mass Media on Proactive Disclosure of Public Authorities (PAs), Appointment Criteria for Information Officers and an Open Re-Use Policy of all Information obtained under the RTI Act were gazetted on February 3rd. They put Sri Lanka’s RTI Regime into the third best place in the world and the first in South Asia. The Commission’s Rules enforces a pro-public Fee Schedule and provides for informal hearings of appeals aimed at the least possible burdens to be put on information seekers. Setting a good precedent for South Asia and other countries across the world, the Rules also state that if an appeal is successful to the Designated Officer in a Public Authority or the Commission, fees for that information will not be charged.
However, the Commission had not been provided with a separate budgetary allocation from the 2017 National Budget unlike the other independent commissions, leading to strong public concerns. Examining the various interviews given to the media by the Minister and Deputy Minister of Mass Media in the wake of these concerns, the Colombo Telegraph understands that both responded lightly, apparently under the mistaken belief that the Commission is another government department!.
The Ministry, which is tasked with implementing RTI in the state sector by the appointing of information officers, also has had to cope with angry social media complaints during the first one week of the RTI working across the country, that the government PAs were clueless about the RTI Act that in the majority of cases, information officers had not been appointed, including by the Office of the President which is covered by the RTI Act.
Meanwhile the RTI Commission’s Media Statement points to the fact that the RTI Act was enacted to bring about a major democratising transformation of relations between Sri Lankan citizens and the government. It imposes important new obligations of openness on PAs which cover constitutional and statutory entities, government departments and bodies, corporate bodies in which the government has a controlling interest, local and provincial authorities as well as courts, tribunals and institutions established to administer justice.
This also includes private entities working under contract, agreement, licence or a partnership with the government(where their statutory or public service or function is concerned), higher educational, private vocational or technical education institutions established, recognised or licenced under any written law or funded wholly or partly by the State and non–governmental organizations rendering a service to the public. Citizens are able to exercise a right to access information held by these Public Authorities, subject only for few exceptions, all of which are subject to the public interest override. New norms have now been established through the Regulation proposed by the Commission for PAs to proactively share information.