Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Act and the RTI Commission has been singled out for special mention in UNESCO’s 2020 report to the United Nations, ‘From Promise to Practice’ with UNESCO noting that during its first three years, the country’s RTI regime has ‘significantly altered’ the relationship between State and citizen.
Looking at RTI requests filed by journalists and citizens during 2017-2019 as analysed by independent legal researcher Ashwini Natesan with expert guidance by RTI Commissioner and senior lawyer Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, UNESCO has noted that information had been released by Information Officers in 77% of publicly reported requests across mainstream and social media. That percentage had increased to a significant 84% when refusals were appealed to the RTI Commission. This is a very high pro-transparency rate, UNESCO has observed in assessing global progress during 2020.
The majority of requests filed at Government institutions were in regard to institutional transparency, the analysis found, with information being asked about matters of high state secrecy during the term of the previous Government, including asking for details of the Prime Minister’s assets and liabilities and how the Central Bank of Sri Lanka invested moneys of the Employees Trust Fund and Provident Fund. The Colombo Telegraph learns that both these Orders of the Commission have been challenged to the Court of Appeal and are pending for more than three years.
Other instances where information was released by Commission Order includes how ex-President Maithripala Sirisena arrived at a decision to single out particular prisoners for execution, how the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission banned online news websites (which was found to be on Presidential orders), how waste and corruption took place at state entities given special privileges like the national airlines and the release of a Cabinet appointed committee report to look into grand scale fraud in the building of the Akuregoda Defence Headquarters during the Rajapaksa period on order of the RTI Commission.
Data collected by grassroots organisations working on RTI in the North and East indicates meanwhile that women far outperformed the men in using the RTI Act, to improve rural hospital facilities, to force local authorities to provide basic utilities such as electricity and water, to get rid of unregulated garbage disposal sites and to stop the building of unauthorised telecommunication towers.
Meanwhile predicting in a cartoon that the RTI Commission will be floating in the air in 2021 with moorings left adrift following the expiry of terms of office of its first Commissioners in October 2021, leaving a bewildered citizen scratching his chin, one Sri Lankan daily newspaper has called upon the Government to do far more than ‘just keep the Act and the RTI Commission in existence.’ Commending RTI as one of the nation’s few achievements despite delays in the process due to resistant public officers and a struggling Commission which lacks human resources, the Daily Mirror has reminded the Government that ‘far more must be done than merely keeping the Act and the Commission in place.’
The 20th Amendment kept the constitutional right to information brought in by the 19th Amendment (2015) in place. The RTI Act (2016) which came after the 19th Amendment, required RTI Commissioners to be nominated by the Bar Association, the Editors Guild and civil society organisations for the CC to consider and recommend for appointment to the President. However with the Constitutional Council (CC) being kicked out, this two tiered nomination and vetting process will no longer be applicable.
Analysts say that the RTI Act has to be amended to allow a new process to come into play and that the next Commissioners will be likely appointed directly by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka’s Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwelle has also announced that the RTI Commission will be included in the list of constitutional commissions in the new Constitution planned for 2021.
But recent appointments to other commissions have not been promising with a politically compromised appointment to head the Elections Commission and a State Minister’s father (also a former Minister himself) put to chair the Human Rights Commission. The Government has also forced members of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka to resign from their positions with the aim of replacing them with more easily influenced individuals leading to protests by consumers and trade unions.