An argument by the Sri Lanka Army that hotels and canteens being run by the Army in the North and East are maintained by ‘welfare funds’ and not public money, has been dismissed by the Right to Information (RTI) Commission established under the country’s internationally praised RTI Act. Pointing out that ‘the said hospitality ventures are controlled, operated and maintained’ by officers of the Public Authority ‘who are paid out of Government funds’, the Commission has directed the Army to provide the information.
The RTI Commission has stated that, accepting this argument that no public funds are involved will amount to ‘allowing the Public Authority a special privilege’ contrary to the RTI Act.
Though the information asked by the journalist was initially denied by the Army, it later agreed to give the information following the Ministry of Defence submitting similar information regarding hospitality ventures run in the former war theatre by the Sri Lanka Air Force and Navy to the information requester, G. Dileepamuthan.
But the admission by the Army during the hearing that it maintained an intelligence file on the journalist has led to a storm of protests on social media. The RTI Commission has informed that ‘if any Public Authority commences to obtain Military Intelligence reports in regard to citizens purely on the basis that they are filing Right to Information requests which is a legitimate and legal procedure under the Right to Information (RTI) Act passed by the Sri Lanka Parliament, then the fundamental objectives of the Act would be negated.‘
It was pointed out that ‘while the Commission is not in a position to assess at this stage as to whether this has actually happened in this case or not on the facts before us, it must also be stated that in principle, this would be a matter of grave concern befitting the specific intervention of the Commission if RTI applicants are sought to be intimidated in any way whatsoever.’
The Commission had noted particularly that the background of an Appellant or the purpose of an information request is not a relevant consideration under and in terms of the RTI Act to deny information.
Earlier, the Army’s insistence that the journalist provide the copy of his identity card was reprimanded by the Commission which pointed out that ‘the Appellant has already mentioned his NIC number in his information request; therefore it is not appropriate for the PA to further request copies of his NIC and /or Passport. The RTI Act No.12 of 2016 is very clear, that an information request can only be declined by citing one of the exemptions in Section 5(1)(a) of the Act; it cannot be blocked through circuitous means.’ The Information Officer for the Army had then assured the Commission that the practice of asking RTI Appellants to produce identity cards will not be repeated in the future
The RTI Commission consists of Mahinda Gammampila, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Rohini Walgama, SG Punchihewa and S. Thiruchandran.