Sri Lanka’s Sinhala newspapers, including the Lankadeepa, carried this week, a Directive of the RTI Commission to the Parliament on an RTI request filed by a journalist asking as to how many MPs had filed their Declarations of Assets from 2010 to date.
The RTI request had been rejected by the Parliament through the Office of the Secretary General of Parliament which had asked journalist Chamara Sampath to file a request to the Speaker and had also stated that this information must be obtained under the Assets and Liabilities Law and not the RTI Act.
The journalist had then appealed to the RTI Commission, saying that he cannot appeal to the Office of the Speaker under the RTI Act as Parliament had nominated the Secretary General’s Office as the depositary of requests for RTI. The Colombo Telegraph learns that the Secretary General of Parliament had submitted before the Commission that information relating to MPs Declarations of Assets is not in its control and that it is only in the Speaker’s control. It had been maintained that the Office of the Speaker functions separately from the Office of the Secretary General.
However the Commission had referred to its previous order where activists had asked for the Assets Declaration of the Prime Minister which had been directed to be given on the basis that the RTI Act would be deprived of all force if a 1970’s law like the Assets and Liabilities Act was given priority and also, that elected officials must maintain highest standards of transparency. That Order has been appealed from by the Secretary to the President to the Court of Appeal and will be heard for argument in 2020.
In the appeal being currently heard, the Commission had pointed out that statistical data of the kind asked by the journalist could not anyway be obtained under the Assets and Liabilities Act and that the information request relates to a matter of high public interest. It had directed the Secretary General and the Parliament, as the Public Authority, to consult with Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and respond to the information request.
Presently, it is not clear as to whether all the Presidential candidates have submitted their Assets Declarations to the Elections Commission as required by law. Recently Rohan Pallewatta, an independent Presidential candidate emphasized that those contesting for the country’s top job must be asked to make their Declarations public. Independent monitors have observed that this resistance to transparency is common across all political parties and runs counter to their pledges of good governance.
The refusal of Sri Lankan politicians to make their Assets Declarations public contrasts with the rest of South Asia where these Declarations are regularly published and citizens do not have to go to the RTI Act or to courts of law to get that information.