Following the issuing of a Media Statement by the RTI Commission of Sri Lanka carried by Colombo Telegraph, CT contacted the Ministry of Media yesterday regarding Statement’s information that the Commission still had only ‘skeletal staff’ five months after its establishment. The Ministry of Media is the nodal agency responsible for implementing RTI in the country. Officials at the Ministry admitted that there is a bottleneck in getting the funds through.
The Colombo Telegraph learns that though the Commission advertised for a Director General a month ago, the salary approved by the Government for the post was inadequate even for a middle level management post. This has put the Commission into difficulty in recruiting a suitable person for what will be a challenging and difficult task. Only three clerks, one peon and one coordinating secretary serve on the Commission, all of whom are also not sufficiently paid. Requests made to the Government to rectify the situation have fallen on deaf ears.
The burden of coping with more than three hundred and fifty appeals and requests for assistance coming in has therefore been passed to Commission members, who are themselves not resourced properly. CT understands that the forthcoming website of the Commission is only coming into being because it is funded by the World Bank due to the interventions of Commission members.
Chrissy Abeysekera, a lawyer and RTI activist working voluntarily with the London based Sri Lanka Media Law Reform Initiative has been documenting the RTI process. She pointed to this situation being ‘unprecedented’ in the context of an internationally hailed RTI law, which the Government has been quick to capitalize on for its own advantage while not providing for a smooth transition of funds to the RTI Commission.
‘Are these bottlenecks deliberate or part of the normal Government bureaucracy?’ she questioned.
‘Recently I saw an interviews by a social media RTI activist in a Sinhala online journal where he unquestioningly accepts the claims by the Director General of Information Ranga Kalansooriya some months ago that the Government has ‘approved’ a sum of Rs 76 million for the RTI Commission.’ she said.
Abeysekera pointed out that this is part of an active propaganda effort in posting messages on social media and giving online interviews to hide the truth from the public and cover up the Government’s actions due to juicy foreign trips and trainer positions as ‘RTI experts’ being obtained and channeled through Kalansooriya.
‘People in the know are well aware as to whom I am referring to’ she said.
‘We have been tracing the way in which the third best RTI law in the world came into being. This serves as a good lesson not only for other efforts in Sri Lanka but also elsewhere’, she pointed out. ‘What we have discovered is that none of these ‘experts’ actually contributed to the RTI process in Sri Lanka except taking part in trainings from 2015, even though they marketed themselves as having had a key role to play and put forward project proposals by NGOs claiming money for the work.’ she said.
Kalansooriya’s claim came in the context of a media storm being raised earlier this year that the Commission was being deliberately starved of funds to cripple its functioning. Kalansooriya claimed on twitter that the Government had in fact released the money and thanked the media for raising the issues. These claims were questioned.
Kalansooriya who is now fighting to keep his job as DG, Information Department amidst the ministry shake-up after the Ministry changed hands, has also tried to drive a new media regulatory process. This proposed law tries to force journalists to give up their sources of information through a body which they maintain, would be ‘independent’ and ‘excellent’, similar to the RTI Commission.
Abeysekera pointed out that this was a good propaganda tactic; ‘praise the Commission but do not give it enough money’ she said.
The Government has since then back-peddled on the effort to enact a media regulatory framework to the disappointment of its loud supporters who had been banking on more juicy foreign trips under the cover of protests that media self-regulation was ineffective.