Mystery continues to deepen over the contents of 102 metric tons of ‘printed material’ that SriLankan Airlines airlifted through three charter flights of Airbus A333 to Entebbe International Airport, Uganda in February 2021.
The country’s national carrier refused to give details as to what that printed material was when the Sunday Times, Colombo filed a Right to Information (RTI) application in April 2021, saying that it had ‘no specific details’ on the contents and also citing ‘commercial confidence’ under Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) Act.
It was further stated by SriLankan that “The airway bill and charter agreement both mention the nature of goods as printed matter and do not provide further details. The precise nature of the goods is subjected to review or clearance by Sri Lanka Customs prior to being brought to the cargo terminal for onward carriage by SLA.”
However, users familiar with the RTI Act say that, if SriLankan Airlines had no knowledge of the contents as it claimed, then that would have been enough to base the denial of information. The fact that it went a step further to quote a specific ground, ‘commercial confidence’ to refuse information in Section 5 of the Act, meant that it may have had actual knowledge. “They safeguarded themselves further by giving commercial confidence also as a reason’” they said.
As quoted in the news report carried by the Sunday Times at the time (‘SLA uplifts 102 tons of ‘printed material’ to Uganda, but refuses to give details’, the Sunday Times, April 18th 2021), SriLankan Airlines based that answer on the ground that, “It falls within commercial confidence because if the precise nature of the goods is revealed, then other airlines and/or cargo agents would also solicit business for these types of goods from the same shipper, to the detriment of SLA.” In what amounted to a clear violation of the RTI Act, it also refused to release information to who commissioned the cargo to be sent to Uganda, the cost and details of the sender on the same basis.
Pointing out that the release of any information under the RTI Act is equivalent to disclosure into the public domain, SLA said the name of the entity/shipper who commissioned the chartered flight constituted commercial confidence, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of both SLA and third parties. “This is because if the name of the entity/shipper is disclosed, then other airlines would also solicit business from this same shipper to the detriment of SLA. Accordingly the name is exempt information covered by Section 5(1)(d) of the RTI Act,” the airline had said to the Times.
No appeal was filed against that decision of SriLankan Airlines to the Right to Information (RTI) Commission at the time. The controversy had arisen just before a harsh Covid-19 blanket lockdown was slapped on Sri Lanka soon thereafter with a shutdown of state services island wide. However, as the RTI Act does not prohibit a second request being filed to SriLankan or to the Customs on the same issue, RTI activists say that this mystery should be cleared up. At the time that SriLankan Airlines refused to reveal information, a source at the Customs Department had said that the identity of the printed material ought to be revealed.
The Ugandan link has come into fresh controversy following the disclosure that the mystery jet which had airlifted Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his entourage to Thirupathi had departed from Uganda though being registered in San Marino (a reputed tax haven). Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa-appointed Ambassador to Uganda is Velupillai Kananathan, a well known profiteerer and racketeer.