Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife and the Marine Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA), two key bodies tasked with state responsibility for handling the massive environmental loss caused by the fire on the X-Press Pearl off Sri Lanka’s coast in May 2021, have been ordered by the Right to Information Commission to release post mortem reports of dead sea turtles following the disaster.
Its sinking caused the worst environmental harm that Sri Lanka had seen in decades. Laden with chemicals, the leaking of poison into the sea caused unprecedented loss of marine life. A year later, mystery still surrounds events leading up to the fire, causes for the same, preventive action taken by state agencies and the Government’s efforts to compensate fishermen who lost livelihoods.
The Commission’s Order was in response to two appeals filed by a journalist from Hambantota. Rahul Samantha Hettiarachchi who had asked Wildlife and MEPA for information concerning the environmental damage The two agencies had disclosed some information including the initial compensation paid to Sri Lanka by the Singapore based owners of the ship. But both had refused to release the post morten reports claiming that this would impact ongoing negotiations on what has become a major insurance case.
The Wildlife Department had claimeda case as reason to refuse the information but not disclosed any other details. The appeal filed against that refusal by Mr RS Hettiarachchi on June 28th 2022 to the office of the RTI Commission was decided in his favour by the Commission on August 4th 2022.
In the separate appeal filed by him against MEPA, the Chairperson and Director General had responded that this is ‘sensitive’ information on which it was consulting with the Attorney General. But the Commission had raised the inability of both state agencies to raise a justifiable exemption under the RTI Act to decline the information, informing MEPA that ‘sensitive’ information is not a ground on which the Act allows to refuse information requests.
MEPA’s failure to process the request according to the RTI Act was contained in a hard hitting Order issued by the Commission earlier this month. MEPA had been severely rebuked for ‘suppression of facts’ as its Director General had alleged that it had not recieved the information request despite the journalist sending it by registered post.
Its conduct in asking for several postponements on the basis that it was discussing with the Attorney General also came in for criticism.
Journalists reporting on the Commission’s decisions in the Sinhala media have pointed to the warning issued that both MEPA and the Wildlife Department will face prosecution under the Act if they fail to act according to the directive.
Up to now, no appeals have been lodged to the Court of Appeal against the Commission’s decisions.