More than half of the time of the understaffed, overworked and under-budgeted RTI Commission of Sri Lanka is taken in explaining matters to Colombo’s privileged English-speakers who do not read the gazette and the Act.
The arrogance of a few Colombo based media and NGOs in failing to follow Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Act and gazette in their information requests has become a major stumbling block to the effective implementation of the regime, the Colombo Telegraph (CT) understands.
In contrast, provincial journalists and civil society organsations (CSOs) with little access to the law given the lack of resources in rural areas have been enthusiastically and properly using the gazette and regulations/rules of the Ministry of Media and the RTI Commission, a source from the Ministry of Media said.
The Media Ministry is the nodal agency responsible for implementing RTI. CT asked him as to why he thought this was different and he said ‘the problem is that these people in Colombo think the rules do not apply to them. They go for the easiest and most convenient way without reading the RTIO1 form or the Rules of the Commission that have been gazetted. Ironically these are the very people who should read and understand as they are conversant in English. But that is not what we are seeing. Maybe this is a good study for a social scientist to spend time in!’
This Sunday (2nd July) the Sunday Leader carried a correction of the RTI Commission of Sri Lanka in response to an article by a journalist (Nirmala Kannangara) who had claimed that she had emailed the Commission in an appeal on her right to information request against the Department of the Police being denied but had not obtained any response. The Commission’s correction had informed the Leader that this claim was factually incorrect. The Commission had responded to her, pointing to the appointment of an Information Officer by the Department. The head of the Department will be the DO. It had said that, if a proper appeal is filed against the refusal, the Commission will act to the fullest extent of the law.
The journalist was told that she could not file appeals to the Commission by email as that was not permitted by the gazette. Appeals must be filed in person (or through any representative) or sent by registered post. The correction was carried by the Leader in an inside page and also in social media as online websites had also re-published the incorrect story. Commenting on this, accountant Yohes Yoheswaran said on twitter, ‘it is ‘sad that Sri Lankan journalists are not familiar with the Rules.’ He pointed out, ‘I followed the rules as per the RTI Act and got the information I asked for from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka.’
Sri Lankan journalist Amantha Perera pointed out that there is a ‘serious lack’ of application/awareness by journalists of RTI in Sri Lanka right now. Perera was responding on social media to an article in the New Indian Express on a recent book in India ‘Journalism Through RTI; Information, Investigation, Impact’ by journalist Shyamlal Yadav, saying that this will be true in Sri Lanka only if journalists know how to use the RTI Act to gain information.
Ministry sources explained that more than half of the time of the understaffed, overworked and under-budgeted RTI Commission of Sri Lanka is taken in explaining matters to people who do not read the gazette and the Act. Last month, the Commission fixed for hearing, consideration of questions of law on the failure of Colombo based RTI trainer Transparency International Sri Lanka to specify the fact of citizenship in information requests filed by them on the assets declarations of the Prime Minister and the President.
This was not in compliance with Section 3(1) of the RTI Act which gives information under the Act only to a citizen and also RTI Form No 1 in the gazette which asks the requester specifically to declare citizenship. The gazette permits an information request even on a blank sheet of paper, provided that the essential requirements are met. In a similar way, appeals continue to be filed on email by journalists of the Colombo based Sinhala and English media which are not permitted by the gazette.
This resulted in the Commission issuing an Important Announcement last week on its website (http://www.rticommission.lk) asking information requesters to remember to always declare the fact of citizenship in accordance with the gazette form RTI01. It was also pointed out that an Appeal to the office of the RTI Commission cannot be sent through electronic mail.
Given the lack of awareness on the part of journalists, some have questioned on twitter as to what the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), which is supposedly training journalists on the RTI Act, is doing! This is apart from the CEO of the SLPI Kumar Lopez attending RTI trainings organized by Transparency International Sri Lanka in Colombo hotels; the pictures of one event were widely carried on social media this week.
Yesterday, Ada Derana reported the RTI Commission as having urged officers of state departments to provide information without restriction. The Commission had affirmed that any and all information must be disclosed as requested, according to the RTI Act of Sri Lanka. It had proceeded to explain that they had received a number of complaints claiming that certain state departments had refused to comply with requests of information filed by citizens. As a result, a situation had arisen where the Commission had to directly issue orders to departmental officers to disclose the relevant information upon request. The RTI Commission stated that the public too had a right to access documents of state institutions. The Commission also added that measures would be taken to thoroughly inform departmental officers on the need for compliance with information requests.
If the Public Authority (PA) has not appointed both the Information Officer and the Designated Officer, then the Act states that the request can be made to the head of the PA with appeal directly after that, to the Commission. In the Announcement of the Commission, it was further stated that an appeal to the RTI Commission can only be after an appeal is lodged with the DO. If a DO is not in place, then the Head of the PA becomes the DO. If there is no response by the DO, an appeal to the Commission may be filed after the three week period within which the DO has to respond has lapsed.
The University Grants Commission and several universities are notably among the remaining few state institutions that have not acted in compliance with the Act.