Journalists are planning to file a Right to Information (RTI) request to the Sri Lanka Parliament asking for details of the Parliament’s conformity to the country’s Right to Information (RTI) Act after the Office of the Speaker issued a circular on 10th January 2022 announcing the appointment of an Information Officer (IO) and a Designated Officer (DO).
The appointments, made separately from the Speaker’s Office, follows the Court of Appeal listing an appeal filed by Parliament against an Order of the Right to Information Commission (RTIC) for hearing. The Bench of the Court, due to hear the appeal this Tuesday (11th February), had transferred the case to the President of the Court of Appeal, relisting the appeal for later in the month.
The RTI Commission Order by Commissioners M Gammampila, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Rohini Walgama and SG Punchihewa on 2nd February 2021 had reprimanded Parliament for failing to put proper administrative arrangements in place for citizens to get information. The Commission delivered the Order after journalist Chamara Sampath had appealed to the Commission to release the list of Members of Parliament who have filed Declarations of Assets and Liabilities from 2010-2018. This was after the Secretary General refused to issue the information saying that the information was with the Speaker’s Office. However, the journalist had said that he was unable to get that information from the Speaker’s Office, as the Speaker did not have a separate information officer.
Commenting on the Parliament’s sending of the information requestor from one office to another to get information that should be readily available, the Commission had directed the office of the Secretary General of Parliament to release the information, saying that this was a ‘list’ of MPs who had filed their Assets Declarations that was administratively compiled and within the ‘institutional’ possession of Parliament. The Commission said that citizens must have unrestricted public access to that information as this related to the transparency of elected representatives.
The appointment of separate RTI officers by the Speaker comes 1 year after the Commission Order and 5 years after the RTI Act was implemented. However, journalists using the RTI Act have pointed to a problem with two DOs functioning in parallel under the RTI Act. Section 23 (1)(a) of the RTI Act says that a Public Authority may appoint several IOs but that only one DO can be named. Chief of Staff & Deputy Secretary-General of Parliament Mrs K. A. Rohanadeera has been functioning as the DO of Parliament and Assistant Secretary-General (Legislative Services) Mr. Tikiri K. Jayathilake has been the named IO of Parliament since the RTI Act was implemented in February 2017. Both officers are from the administrative branch of the Sri Lanka Parliament.
The officers separately appointed by the Speaker this week are Miss. G. Thatchanarany, Director (Administration) as DO and Mrs. E.D.S.M. Fernando, Deputy Director (Administration) as IO. The postings were publicly announced by the updating of the weblink relating to the Speaker’s office (@https://www.parliament.lk/en/secretariat/right-to-information/rti-speaker-office) this week. Both officers are also from the Parliament’s administrative branch.
Sri Lanka’s Governments have historically refused to publicly release details of the declarations of assets and liabilities of politicians, declaring them to be private information. A 1970’s law allows Sri Lankans to get copies of the documents but bars public release on pain of a hefty jail sentence. Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia which has this law. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh routinely publish the details of assets declarations of their politicians including the Head of State. In 2019, former President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena also appealed to the Court of Appeal against a RTI Commission order directing to release details of the assets declaration of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
That appeal is also pending in the Court of Appeal.