Even as the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) singles out the Sri Lanka RTI Act and the Commission for particular positive mention in a recent global assessment of the performance of RTI, the Colombo Telegraph (CT) learns that the Media Ministry, which is the nodal Ministry under the Act, has disbanded the RTI Unit handling the administration of the Act and supervising the performance of Information Officers and Designated Officers.
Inquiries made by CT to Ministry officials as to why this was the case met with a response that, ‘as four years have passed since the Act was operationalised, there was nothing left for the Ministry to do; let the Commission handle everything.’ Sources at the Ministry objecting to this move however confirmed to us, that this explanation was totally unacceptable and that the real reason was that a few corrupt officials wanted to ‘break the spine of RTI.’
The RTI Act does not mention any time limit for the nodal agency (Media Ministry) to cease its functioning. In other countries such as India, the Ministry of Public Administration is the nodal agency and has been functioning for well over fourteen years since the Indian Act was enacted. Nodal agencies under RTI Acts world wide have a specific responsibility to ensure effective administration of the RTI Act in the public service. On the other hand, RTI Commissions sit as appeal hearing bodies and do not get involved in administration.
CT was told by divisional secretaries in the provinces that all trainings for them by the Ministry have ceased. They see this as a first step to crippling RTI and say that, interested parties are ‘waiting’ for terms of the RTI Commissioners to finish in October 2021, to put their ‘own persons’ into the Commission and complete that process. Though the 20th Amendment continued the constitutional provision on RTI, the appointments of all Commissions, including the RTI Commission, will be made by the President.
Meanwhile, the RTI Commission has noted four years in practice of the RTI Act by conducting a series of consultations island-wide, commencing with the District Secretaries of Nuwara Eliya and Matara and also with the Universities of Kelaniya and Colombo on ‘Assessing Gains and Challenges on Four Years of Sri Lanka’s RTI.’
The Commission has observed that UNESCO has, in its 2020 Global Report to the General Assembly on the status of Right to Information regimes worldwide, titled ‘From Promise to Practice…’, accessible at https://ifap.ru/pr/2020/n201207b.pdf, pointed to 85% of the Commission’s Orders, during 2017-2019 releasing information in full or in part, along with detailed reasoned Orders. The report had been compiled by independent researcher and digital media analyst Ashwini Natesan with guidance and expert input from RTI Commissioner Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena.
In its Statement, the Commission has welcomed a move towards greater transparency in the public sector in response to its Orders, including the open publication of lists of Samurdhi beneficiaries and other welfare initiatives, release of policies, directives and circulars impacting on the general public and open disclosure of information on projects by municipalities and other state entities. It has however stated that notices of warning of prosecutions have already been sent under the seal of the Commission to state officers intentionally flouting the RTI Act.