RTI, One year on | Daily News

RTI, One year on

One year in, advocates say the new law is working well:

This is a story that had it happened one year ago, people would not have believed.

A Sri Lankan citizen, acting in his private capacity, asked the Bureau of the Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation, how many former LTTE cadres they “rehabilitate” annually.

He was ignored. So he asked again. Again he was ignored.

Instead of giving up, this man, one Tharindu Jayawardena, took his request to a court of law. After summoning representatives of the Bureau for testimony, they ordered the information, everything Jayawardena asked for, be released. This is the power of the Right to Information law, which turns one year old this month.

Advocates in civil society point to the Right to Information Commission, the legal body which is set up to hear cases where information requests are rejected or ignored, as a major reason for the law’s early success.

“One year ago, it was a voyage into the unknown,” said Asoka Obeyesekere, the Executive Director of the anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International Sri Lanka. “One thing that is clear is that the approach of the RTI commission has been very promising.”

Bolstered by strong implementation, the RTI law is changing the way citizens are able to interact with their government. Many challenges still exist, but the portrait of RTI’s first year is a positive one.

RTI’s watchdog

The RTI Commission is an independent, five-member body charged with monitoring that public authorities are following the terms of the act.

Under the law, if people’s RTI requests are rejected, they can appeal to the public authority they are requesting from. If they are rejected again, they can appeal to the commission.

In its first year, the body received over 400 of such appeals, according to data released by the commission. And there are more on the way.

“In the last two months, we have received 80 new appeals,” said RTI Commission Director General Piyathissa Ranasinghe in an interview.

Some of these appeals are straight forward. Take the case of G. Dileep Amuthan, of Jaffna, who requested information from the Northern Provincial Council Agriculture Ministry about funds allocated to a conservation project.

The Ministry’s information officer told Amuthan that they didn’t have the information he was asking for, commission records to show. Unsatisfied, Amuthan appealed to an appeals officer, who did not reply within the timeline specified by law.

When Amuthan appeared before the RTI Commission on November 2 of 2017, the commissioners ordered the Ministry to release the information within a week. They complied.

Other cases, however, like the one involving statistics on LTTE cadres, are more complex.

Hearing records show that commissioners grappled with their decision on whether to order the Bureau of Rehabilitation to release its data.

It appears the Rehabilitation Authority skirted the RTI law in ways which the commission had to untangle.

When Jayawardena, the requester, first called an information officer of the Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation, he said the government official asked for details about who he was and why he wanted the information.

This is clearly a breach of the law, the commission pointed out, which says “a citizen making a request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details.”

Later, at the hearing, representatives of the Bureau argued that the information could not be released because it would affect the privacy of former LTTE cadres and undermine national security. These are both valid exemptions under the RTI law.

But Jayawardena showed that the Bureau had already released the exact data he was asking for up until the year 2014.

The numbers are still publicly available on the Bureau’s website.

In the past, the Bureau of the Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation had apparently even released photographs of former child soldiers.

The commissioners said that in view of this, the public authority’s defense “appears to be unsustainable,” according to the hearing records.

However, they deferred to the Bureau’s representatives, asking them to submit the 2014-2017 data first to them before they decided whether or not to make the information public.

When information officers of the Bureau returned with the requested information in this past January, the commissioners ordered them to release it.

“What is being requested here is statistical information with no personal details (names, addresses) included,” they wrote in their order. “Therefore, there is no real risk of possible harmful consequences being caused to those who have been/are being rehabilitated.”

“In fact, positive effects of disclosure and examples of rehabilitated cadre carry the potential of a positive impact on the reconciliation process,” they added.

Speaking to the Daily News, RTI Commission Director-General Ranasinghe said the data would be made available to the public in the beginning of March.

‘The spirit of RTI’

A case review by Transparency International found that in all the cases that the RTI Commission has concluded so far, it has sided with the release of information about 84 percent of the time.

“The RTI Commission has taken a progressive approach to information disclosure in most instances,” said Sankhitha Gunaratne, Transparency’s Right to Information Manager.

She noted that in the beginning of the year, with a small staff and very limited funding, they did not refuse to hear cases.

“I think the spirit of RTI is very much embodied within the commission,” said Obeyesekere, Transparency’s Executive Director.

There are other bright spots in RTI’s first year. Transparency International Sri Lanka has helped citizens file 610 RTI requests, according to their own statistics, and the Sarvodaya Foundation has helped file an additional 233.

Many of those requests have yielded positive results. Thushani Kandilpana, of Transparency’s Matara unit, said a teacher approaching retirement used RTI after receiving conflicting messages from the local office regarding her pension.

After submitting the request, an education officer said they had misplaced the teacher’s files and would solve the situation for her.

But there have also been some horror stories. According to Gunaratne, when some people tried to file requests with a housing authority office, the local officers pushed back so much that the confrontation ended in a brawl.

Obeyesekere said early uneven implementation of the law was widely expected.

“From the state’s perspective, you have bureaucrats who have been nurtured on the establishment code, who now how have to administer open government,” he said. “On the other side, you also have citizens who are also unaccustomed to formally requesting information.”

He said state agencies need to better make people aware of their constitutional right to information.

“There is still more that needs to be done, particularly I feel on the part of the state media, who actually communicate to the public on the fact that they have (this right),” he said.

For his part, RTI Commission Director-General Ranasinghe says the body will continue to take the same approach they’ve used so far.

“Our funding is not a problem now,” he said. According to him, President Sirisena approved their Rs. 55 million budget.

“We’re approved to hire 20 people full-time,” he said. “We didn’t have them up until now, they were only temporary.”

Training workshops for government authorities’ information officers are held by the Finance and Mass Media Ministry, he said.

With the commission on track to conclude all of its 2017 cases by the end of March, supported by a new budget, they show no signs of stopping. Now citizens just need to keep filing.

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