A separate budget line item for the Right to Information (RTI) Commission of Sri Lanka has been listed under the budget line items for all independent Commissions in the 2018 Budget, sources in Parliament informed the Colombo Telegraph.
However for the past several months, the Commission has had little money to operate and from October, even the Commission’s staff has not been paid their allowances, as reported in the Lankadeepa yesterday.
The RTI Act specifies that the independent RTI Commission should have an independent budget with moneys voted in from Parliament. However due to the Government not putting aside a separate budget line item for the RTI Commission for 2017, moneys were passed temporarily from the Presidential Secretariat for the first six months. From August this year, the official conduit of sending the funds until the Commission got its own budget, became the Media Ministry. It is at this point that the funding situation passed from bad to worse, Colombo Telegraph understands, due to resistance by some officials. The Media Ministy is the nodal agency for RTI under the Act but its implementation of the Act among Government bodies has been severely criticized by activists who say that only training programmes are being done.
The financial crisis has been so severe that Commission members have contributed their personal funds towards the daily expenses of the running of the Commission, the Lankadeepa reports. Though the Commission had asked for Rs 75 million for its operationalizing during 2017 and the former Director General of the Information Department Ranga Kalansooriya claimed that the funds had been released, the Colombo Telegraph learns from parliamentary sources that not even 10% of that amount has been able to be utilized by the Commission due to obstacles placed by a few officials.
Colombo Telegraph spoke to sources within the Media Ministry to check if the holdup in funds was due to ordinary bureaucracy or if officials were trying to cripple the independently functioning RTI Commission by starving it of resources. A senior administrator who intervened to prevent the situation going any further said “Officials should understand how an independent Commission is supposed to work. You cannot stop these developments by uncivilized (‘nugath”) tactics.’
Appeals coming to the Commission have trebled during the past three months according to the Commission’s website. Despite severe cash constraints, the Commission has been handling hundreds of appeals and released information where Government bodies have declined or delayed to do so. Among these are the Mahanama Tillekeratne report on the 2011 attack by the police on the Katunayake Free Trade Zone workers resulting in hundreds of workers being injured and one killed, released by the Presidential Secretariat after the mother of Roshen Chanaka who had been killed appealed to the Commission. Across the Southern and Western provinces, parents have successfully appealed to the RTI Commission to release information in regard to the admission of school children to Grade One in the background of various financial irregularities being alleged and political pressure being brought to bear on school principals Information on development projects have been released as in the recent Maruthankerny desalination project in the North.
Meanwhile matters covered in secrecy for decades are being exposed with on example being the disclosure by the Presidential Secretariat to the Commission during an appeal hearing last month that the Commission of Inquiry report into the sudden death of former Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader, MHM Ashraff is missing in the file maintained on the case and sent to the National Archives by the Presidential Secretariat during former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s period. It is unclear if the file went missing during the time of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga who commissioned the Report or during Rajapaksa’s time.
The year-long financial crisis of the RTI Commission in 2017 is despite Government Ministers boasting at hearings before the United nations and elsewhere that Sri Lanka has the best RTI law in the region and an independent Commission with eminent members from the legal, public administration and social science fields.